If the essential spiritual training of life (ascesis) is found in meditation, as John Main believed, why is this and how does it work?
Leaving religious language aside to answer this question, we can still see how meditation works comprehensively across our lives. No corner of mind or character is left untouched, eventually, by the ascesis of the mantra. People may start to meditate for very self-concerned reasons. Then they realise that it is far more relational a practice than they thought and the fruits are more evident in their relationships than they imagined.
The implications of this insight are tremendous for the future of the world – as is the insight that ‘meditation creates community’. Does meditation really matter beyond the individual meditator? Does it make a difference to the outcome in Ukraine or the climate crisis? Compared with art as an influence on the world, how does it rate?
The poet W.H. Auden said that ‘poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making, where executives, Would never want to tamper.’ The world continues indifferent to the greatest poetry. I once asked a great musician if he believed that music made us better people. He thought for a moment and said ‘maybe.. at least for an hour or so after they have listened to it.’
Can meditation ‘make things happen’ or ‘make us better’ in ways that poetry or art cannot? Yes, because the art of prayer is the ‘art of arts’. It does not merely change us. It triggers a process of transformation that gently, irresistibly slips into every crack and corner of our being. Such deeply personal and permanent transformation becomes a transfiguration. As we change it changes the environment we dwell in. Our relationships, our work, every chance encounter reflects this influence of the inner on the outer world.
Last night the theologian Jane Williams gave the first of our Evening Speaker series on women mystics as theologians. She spoke powerfully of the prejudice against women that led to them being seen as merely ‘describing their personal experience’: women were not seen as having the capacity to think deeply. She illustrated through the work of three great women mystics how they were also profound thinkers within their theological tradition. Dr Williams spoke of how meditation leads directly into the space made by God where we know God’s self-sharing. We renounce thought and images but intuit God more than we are aware of at the time. This experience can be interrogated afterwards but not during the time of prayer itself.
This suggests how meditation makes a difference. We don’t see how it changes things directly but we see things changing and that must be spoken about. That is true theology. To speak about it quenches the thirst the world is feeling today. In a place where we cannot observe, we taste a reality necessary for changing the human collective mind. This restores the common sense of reality and unity we have tragically lost.

Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2022