Context and structure
Christian meditation involves looking back on Jesus' life, thanksgiving and adoration of God for his action in sending Jesus for human salvation. In her book The Interior Castle (Mansions 6, Chapter 7) Saint Teresa of Avila defined Christian meditation as follows:
By meditation I mean prolonged reasoning with the understanding, in this way. We begin by thinking of the favor which God bestowed upon us by giving us His only Son; and we do not stop there but proceed to consider the mysteries of His whole glorious life.
Quoting the [11:27]: "No one knows the Father but only the Son and anyone whom the Son wants to reveal him" and [2:12]: "But we have received the Spirit who is from God so that we may realize what God has freely given us", theologian Hans von Balthasar explained the context of Christian meditation as follows:
The dimensions of Christian meditation develop from God's having completed his self-revelation in two directions: Speaking out of his own, and speaking as a man, through his Son, disclosing the depths of man.... And this meditation can take place only where the revealing man, God's Son, Jesus Christ, reveals God as his Father: in the Holy Spirit of God, so we may join in probing God's depths, which only God's Spirit probes.
Building on that theme, E. P. Clowney explained that three dimensions of Christian meditation are crucial, not merely for showing its distinctiveness, but for guiding its practice. The first is that Christian meditation is grounded in the Bible. Because the God of the Bible is a personal God who speaks in words of revelation, Christian meditation responds to this revelation and focuses on that aspect, in contrast to mystic meditations which use mantras. The second distinctive mark of Christian meditation is that it responds to the love of God, as in [4:19]: "We love, for he first loved us". The personal relationship based on the love of God that marks Christian communion is thus heightened in Christian meditation. The third dimension is that the revelations of the Bible and the love of God lead to the worship of God: making Christian meditation an exercise in praise.
Thomas Merton characterized the goal of Christian meditation as follows: "The true end of Christian meditation is practically the same as the end of liturgical prayer and the reception of the sacraments: a deeper union by grace and charity with the Incarnate Word, who is the only Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ." While Protestants view salvation in terms of faith and grace alone (i.e. sola fide and sola gratia) both Western and Eastern Christians see a role for meditation on the path to salvation and redemption. Apostle Paul stated in 9:16 that salvation only comes from "God that hath mercy". The path to salvation in Christian meditation is not one of give and take, and the aim of meditation is to bring joy to the heart of God. The Word of God directs meditations to show the two aspects of love that please God: obedience and adoration. The initiative in Christian salvation is with God, and one does not meditate or love God to gain his favor.
Role of the Holy Spirit
In Western Christian teachings, meditation is usually believed to involve the inherent action of the Holy Spirit to help the meditating Christian understand the deeper meanings of the Word of God. In the 12th century, decades before Guigo II's the Ladder of the Monk, one of his predecessors, Guigo I, emphasized this belief by stating that when earnest meditation begins, the Holy Spirit enters the soul of the meditator, "turns water into wine" and shows the path towards contemplation and a better understanding of God.
In the 19th century, Charles Spurgeon affirmed this belief within the Protestant tradition and wrote: "The Spirit has taught us in meditation to ponder its message, to put aside, if we will, the responsibility of preparing the message we've got to give. Just trust God for that." In the 20th century, Hans Urs von Balthasar paraphrased this teaching as follows:
The vistas of God's Word unfold to the meditating Christian solely through the gift of the Divine Spirit. How could we understand what is within God and is disclosed to us except through the Spirit of God who is communicated to us?
As a biblical basis for this teaching, von Balthasar referred to 1 Corinthians 2:9-10: "these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God".:
Distinction from non-Christian meditations
Christian meditation is different from the style of meditations performed in Eastern religions (such as Buddhism) or in the context of the New Age. While other types of meditation may suggest approaches to disengage the mind, Christian meditation aims to fill the mind with thoughts related to Biblical passages or Christian devotions. Although some mystics in both the Western and Eastern churches have associated feelings of ecstasy with meditation, (e.g. St. Teresa of Avila's legendary meditative ecstasy), St. Gregory of Sinai, one of the originators of Hesychasm, stated that the goal of Christian meditation is "seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit, beyond the minor phenomenon of ecstasy".
Modern Christian teachings on meditation at times include specific criticism of the transcendental styles of meditation, e.g. John Bertram Phillips stated that Christian meditation involves the action of the Holy Spirit on Biblical passages and warned of approaches that "disengage the mind" from scripture. According to Edmund P. Clowney, Christian meditation contrasts with cosmic styles of oriental meditation as radically as the portrayal of God the Father in the Bible contrasts with discussions of Krishna or Brahman in Indian teachings. Unlike eastern meditations, most styles of Christian meditations are intended to stimulate thought and deepen meaning. Christian meditation aims to heighten the personal relationship based on the love of God that marks Christian communion. According to Clowney it is the search for wisdom, not ecstasy, that marks the path of Christian meditation, a wisdom sought in the "Christ of Scripture and the Scripture of Christ".
A 1989 document generally known as Aspects of Christian meditation set forth the position of the Holy See with respect to the differences between Christian and eastern styles of meditation. The document, issued as a letter to all Catholic bishops, stresses the differences between Christian and eastern meditative approaches. It warns of the dangers of attempting to mix Christian meditation with eastern approaches since that could be both confusing and misleading, and may result in the loss of the essential Christocentric nature of Christian meditation. The letter warned that euphoric states obtained through Eastern meditation should not be confused with prayer or assumed to be signs of the presence of God, a state that should always result in loving service to others. Without these truths, the letter said, meditation, which should be a flight from the self, can degenerate into a form of self-absorption.