Puritan Meditation: the centerpiece of spiritual formation

In our pre-field training and on-field coaching of missionaries, we emphasize the critical importance of feeding yourself spiritually, or in other words, taking the initiative to regularly nurture your soul in a context where the busyness of ministry and stress of cross-cultural living can make it difficult to keep our hearts and minds set on things above (Col 3:1-2).   Feedback from our missionaries in training suggests that this emphasis is greatly appreciated and desperately needed.    One of those ways that we can feed ourselves spiritually is by learning the spiritual discipline of meditation.   In this area, we have few better teachers than the Puritans.
Meditation for the Puritans was central to all the means of grace or what we might call spiritual disciplines. Meditation enhanced and “improved” public worship, sermons, Bible study, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and service.
Puritan meditation was always biblical meditation. “By anchoring meditation in the living Word, Jesus Christ, and God’s written Word, the Bible, the Puritans distanced themselves from the kind of bogus spirituality or mysticism that stresses contemplation at the expense of action and flights of imagination at the expense of biblical content.” (Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, p. 890)

The Puritan recognized two types of meditation; occasional and deliberate. Occasional meditation is when one “makes use of what he sees with his eyes, or hears with his ears, as a ladder to climb to heaven.” (Edmund Calamy, The Art of Divine Meditation [Kindle edition, location 219]) In our daily lives there are often occasions when what we are experiencing will give us opportunity to think about the Lord and his grace. The Puritans saw all aspects of life as holy so the most mundane aspects reflected God’s grace.

Deliberate meditation was “when a man sets apart an hour a day it may be, sets apart some time, and goes into a private closet, or a private walk, and there doth solemnly and deliberately meditate on heavenly things.” (Calamy, Kindle location 370) The subject of deliberate meditation was rooted in Scripture and included such things as a sermon, the ordinances, doctrine (though controversy was usually avoided). The attributes of God, Christ, heaven, promises of God, the gospel, death, and personal sin were common subjects. Beeke and Jones quote Puritan Joseph Hall listing 87 topics for meditation (901).

Puritan meditation involved the whole person; mind, heart, and practice. Edmund Calamy writes,

 “Meditation must enter into three doors, or else it will never do you any good.  1) It must get into the door of the understanding, … 2) It must get into the door of thy heart, and of thy affections … 3) The door of thy conversation; for thy meditation must not rest in the affections; but it must likewise have influence into thy conversation, to make thy conversation more holy; thou must so meditate of God as to walk as God walks; and so to meditate of Christ as to prize him, and to live in obedience to him.” (Calamy, Kindle location 421, italics original).  

Note that Calamy is using “conversation” with the now obsolete meaning of “behavior or manner of living.” The mind is never left behind nor is it separated from the heart and practice. The Puritans would not allow a false separation of these three “doors”. Our thoughts warm our affections and direct our action. Our actions flow out of passionate thinking on divine subjects.

Edmond Calamy, the Elder

Evangelicals have a rich heritage in the Puritans of those who joined head and heart in biblical meditation. We meditate on Scripture to enrich both our minds and heart. “Now the work of the head or understanding is serious consideration of the Truths we come to meditate upon; the work of the heart is increase of devotion and holiness by these meditations.” (Calamy, Kindle location 1781) Engaging the mind and heart in our meditation must always lead to “particular application” (Calamy, Kindle location 1892, italics original).

Calamy gives five easy rules for practicing meditation on a subject (see Calamy, Kindle location 1836-1894):

  1. Consider what Scripture says about the topic
  2. Consider sermons you have heard on the subject
  3. Read books on the topic
  4. Add specific application to your consideration
  5. Consider the means to apply the truth in your life . 

The Puritans recommended that meditation begin with prayer asking God to help us leave distractions behind and focus on biblical truths and end with thanksgiving for his gracious help.


Puritan meditation was the means of digesting God’s Word deeply to nourish the Christian’s life. It kept mind, heart and lifestyle together. It avoided any compartmentalization of any of these elements. Anyone of these elements in isolation will lead to a distortion of the truth. 
Most Puritan literature exemplifies Puritan meditation. While reading works on the art of divine meditation are helpful, I find that reading examples of Puritan meditation is more beneficial as eating a cookie is better than reading the recipe. The old English makes them difficult to read but new editions are coming out in modern English. One of my favorite Puritan books to recommend for first time readers is The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. In 2014 it has been edited into modern English by D. Matthew Brown and is available on Kindle.

May Puritan mediation take a central place in our spiritual formation!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s