Meditation upon God is a blessed act of the mind because God Himself is an infinitely blessed being and communicates of His fulness of joy to all who contemplate it. Mere thinking, in and of itself, is not sufficient to secure happiness. Everything depends upon the quality of the thought, and this again upon the nature of the object upon which it is expended. There are various kinds and degrees of mental enjoyment, each produced by a particular species of mental reflection. But there is no thinking that gives rest and satisfaction and joy to the soul except thinking upon the glorious and blessed God. All other thought ultimately baffles and tires us.
Heaven comes into the human mind not through poetry or philosophy or science or art – not through any secular knowledge – but through religion. When a man thinks of his wealth, his houses, his friends, or his country, though he derives a sort of pleasure from so doing, yet it is not of such a grave and solid species as to justify its being denominated bliss. No thought that is expended upon the creature, or upon any of the creaturely relations, can possibly produce that “sober certainty of waking bliss” which constitutes heaven. If it can, why is not man a blessed spirit here on earth? If it can, why is it that man in all his movements and strivings never reaches a final centre, at which he is willing to say to his soul: This is enough; this is all; here stand and remain for ever? Man is constantly thinking upon the things of earth, and if they have the power to awaken calm and contented thought, and to induce a permanent and perfect joy, why is he so restless and unhappy? And why does he become the more wearied and soured, the more intensely he thinks and toils?
But there is higher and nobler thought than that of trade and politics. Man can meditate upon purely intellectual themes. He can expend intense reflection upon the mysteries and problems of his own mind and of the Eternal Mind. He can put forth an earnest and graceful effort of his powers within the province of beautiful letters and fine art. But does even such an intellectual – and, so far as it goes, such an elevating – meditation as this produce and preserve genuine tranquillity and enjoyment? Are poet and philosopher synonymous with saint and angel? Is the learned man necessarily a happy one? Look through the history of literary men and see their anxious but baffled research, their eager but fruitless inquiry, their acute but empty speculation, their intense but vain study, and you will know that the wise man spoke true when he said, “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”. Hear the sigh of the meditative Wordsworth:
“Me this unchartered freedom tires;
I feel the weight of chance desires;
My hopes no more must change their name,
I long for a repose that ever is the same.”
No, all thought which does not ultimately come home to God in practical filial, and sympathetic communion is incapable of rendering the soul blessed. The intellect may find a kind of pleasure in satisfying its inquisitive and proud desire to “be as gods, knowing good and evil”, but the heart experiences no peace or rest until by a devout and religious meditation it enters into the fulness of God and shares in His eternal joy.
And here again, as in the former instance, our personal experience is so limited and meagre that the language of Scripture, and of some saints on earth, seems exaggerated and rhetorical. Says the sober and sincere apostle Paul, a man too much in earnest and too well acquainted with the subject to overdraw and overpaint: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him”. There is a strange unearthly joy when a pure and spiritual mind is granted a clear view of the divine perfections. It rejoices with a joy unspeakable and full of glorying. All finite beauty, all created glory, is but a shadow in comparison.
The holy mind rapt in contemplation says with Augustine: “When I love God, I do not love the beauty of material bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, nor the brightness of the light so gladsome to our eyes, nor sweet melodies of varied songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and perfumes and spices; not manna nor honey. None of these do I love, when I love my God. And yet I love a kind of melody, a kind of fragrance and a kind of food, when I love my God – the light, the melody, the fragrance and the food of the inner man, when there shineth into my soul what space cannot contain, and there soundeth what time beareth not away, and there smelleth what breathing disperseth not, and there tasteth what eating diminisheth not. This is it which I love, when I love my God.”
We find it difficult, with our sluggish and earthly temper, to believe all this and to sympathise with it. Yet it is simple naked truth and fact. There is a heaven, whether we reach it or not. There is a beatific vision of God, whether it ever enrapture our eyes or not. God is infinite blessedness and glory, and no good being can behold Him without partaking of it. As he gazes, he is changed into the same image from glory to glory. The more clear and full his vision, the more overwhelming and boundless is the influx of heaven into him. We may know something of this here on earth. The more we meditate upon God and divine things, the happier shall we become in our own minds. There are at this moment, upon this cursed and thistle-bearing earth, some meek and gentle spirits whose life of prayer and holy communion streaks the heavens with bars of amber, and clothes everything in heavenly light. And the more this divine pleasure enters the soul, the more will it hunger and thirst after it. For this is the highest good; this is the absolute delight. This never satiates. This never wearies. This joy in the vision of God has the power to freshen and invigorate while it runs through the fibres of the heart. And therefore, even amidst the most ecstatic and satisfying visions of heaven, the blessed still cry: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God.”
Never will our minds reach a state in which they will really be at rest, and never will they put forth an activity which they will be willing to have eternal, until they acquire the mental habits of the holy angels. In the saints’ everlasting rest, there is an unintermittent contemplation and sight of God. Who of us is ready for it? Who of us is certain that he will not turn away, when he finds that this, and this alone, is the heaven of which he has heard so much. Who of us has such a holy frame and such a spiritual sympathy with God that every deeper descent into that abyss of holiness and purity will reveal new sights of joy and start out new feelings of wonder and love? Who of us can be happy in heaven? For this open vision of God, this sight of Him face to face, this beatific contemplation of His perfections, is the substance of paradise, the jasper foundation of the city of God.
We have thus seen that religious meditation upon God and divine things elevates, sanctifies and blesses. But though this Christian habit produces such great and good fruits, there is probably no duty that is more neglected. We find it easier to read our Bible than to ponder upon it, easier to listen to preaching than inwardly to digest it, easier to respond to the calls of benevolence and engage in external service in the church than to go into our closets. And is not this the secret of the faint and sickly life in our souls? Is not this the reason why we live at a poor dying rate? Do you think that if we often entered into the presence of God and obtained a realizing view of things unseen and eternal, earthly temptation would have such a strong power over us as it does? Think you that if we received every day a distinct and bold impression from the attributes of God, we should be so distant from Him in our hearts? Can we not trace our neglect of duty, our lukewarm feelings and our great worldliness of heart to our lack of the vision of God?
The success of a Christian mainly depends upon a uniform and habitual communion with his God and Redeemer. No spasmodic resolutions into which he may be exasperated by the goadings of conscience can be a substitute for it. If holy communion and prayer are interrupted, he will surely fall into sin. In this world of continual temptation and of lethargic consciences, we need to be awakened and awed by the serene splendour of God’s holy countenance. But we cannot behold that amidst the vapours and smoke of everyday life. We must go into our closets and shut the door, and pray to our Father who seeth in secret. Then shall we know how power to resist temptation comes from fellowship with God. Then shall we know what a Sabbath that soul enjoys which, with open eye, looks long and steadily at the divine perfections. With what a triumphant energy, like that of the archangel trampling on the dragon, does Moses come down from the mount into the life of conflict and trial! With what a vehement spiritual force does a holy mind resist evil after it has just seen the contrast between evil and God! Will the eagle that has soared above the earth in the free air of the open firmament of heaven, and has gazed into the sun with an undazzled eye, endure to sink and dwell in the dark cavern of the owl and the bat? Then will the spirit which has seen the glorious light of the divine countenance endure to descend and grovel in the darkness and shame of sin.
It should therefore be a diligent and habitual practice with us to meditate upon God and divine things. Time should be carefully set apart and faithfully used for this sole purpose. It is startling to consider how much of our life passes without any thought of God, without any distinct and filial recognition of His presence and His character. And yet how much of it might be spent in sweet and profitable meditation! The callings of our daily life do not require the whole of our mental energy and reflection. If there were a disposition – if the current of feeling and affection were set in that direction – how often could the farmer commune with God in the midst of his toil, or the merchant in the very din and pressure of his business. How often could the workman send his thoughts and his ejaculations upward, and the work of his hands be none the worse for it. “What hinders,” says Augustine, “a servant of God, while working with his hands, from meditating in the law of the Lord and singing unto the name of the Lord most high? As for divine songs, he can easily say them even while working with his hands and, like rowers with a boat-song, so with godly melody cheer up his very toil.”
But the disposition is greatly lacking. If there were an all-absorbing affection for God in our hearts, and it were deep joy to see Him, would not this “sweet meditation” of the Psalmist be the pleasure of life, and all other thinking the duty – a duty performed from the necessity that attaches to this imperfect mode of existence, rather than from any keen relish for it? If the vision of God were glorious and ravishing to our minds, should we not find them often indulging themselves in the sight, and would not a return to the things of earth be reluctant? Would not thought upon God steal through and suffuse all our other thinking as sunset does the evening sky, giving a pure and saintly hue to all our feelings, and pervading our entire experience?
1. The third head, slightly edited, of one of Shedd’s Sermons to the Spiritual Man. The discourse was entitled Religious Meditation and was based on the text: “My meditation of Him shall be sweet” (Ps 104:34a). The second head, on the sanctifying power of meditation, appeared in the August issue. Shedd was a prominent American theologian in the second half of the nineteenth century.