Meditation And Recollection

Recollection, the art which the practical man is now invited to

learn, is in essence no more and no less than the subjection of the

attention to the control of the will. It is not, therefore, a purely

mystical activity. In one form or another it is demanded of all

who would get control of their own mental processes; and does or

should represent the first great step in the education of the human

consciousness. So slothf
l, however, is man in all that concerns

his higher faculties, that few deliberately undertake this education

at all. They are content to make their contacts with things by a

vague, unregulated power, ever apt to play truant, ever apt to fail

them. Unless they be spurred to it by that passion for ultimate

things which expresses itself in religion, philosophy, or art, they

seldom learn the secret of a voluntary concentration of the mind.

Since the philosopher's interests are mainly objective, and the

artist seldom cogitates on his own processes, it is, in the end, to

the initiate of religion that we are forced to go, if we would learn

how to undertake this training for ourselves. The religious

contemplative has this further attraction for us: that he is by

nature a missionary as well. The vision which he has achieved is

the vision of an intensely loving heart; and love, which cannot

keep itself to itself, urges him to tell the news as widely and as

clearly as he may. In his works, he is ever trying to reveal the

secret of his own deeper life and wider vision, and to help his

fellow men to share it: hence he provides the clearest, most

orderly, most practical teachings on the art of contemplation that

we are likely to find. True, our purpose in attempting this art may

seem to us very different from his: though if we carry out the

principles involved to their last term, we shall probably find that

they have brought us to the place at which he aimed from the

first. But the method, in its earlier stages, must be the same;

whether we call the Reality which is the object of our quest

aesthetic, cosmic, or divine. The athlete must develop much the

same muscles, endure much the same discipline, whatever be the

game he means to play.

So we will go straight to St. Teresa, and inquire of her what

was the method by which she taught her daughters to gather

themselves together, to capture and hold the attitude most

favourable to communion with the spiritual world. She tells us--

and here she accords with the great tradition of the Christian

contemplatives, a tradition which was evolved under the pressure

of long experience--that the process is a gradual one. The method

to be employed is a slow, patient training of material which the

licence of years has made intractable; not the sudden easy turning

of the mind in a new direction, that it may minister to a new

fancy for "the mystical view of things." Recollection begins, she

says, in the deliberate and regular practice of meditation; a

perfectly natural form of mental exercise, though at first a hard


Now meditation is a half-way house between thinking and

contemplating: and as a discipline, it derives its chief value from

this transitional character. The real mystical life, which is the

truly practical life, begins at the beginning; not with supernatural

acts and ecstatic apprehensions, but with the normal faculties of

the normal man. "I do not require of you," says Teresa to her

pupils in meditation, "to form great and curious considerations in

your understanding: I require of you no more than to look."

It might be thought that such looking at the spiritual world,

simply, intensely, without cleverness--such an opening of the Eye

of Eternity--was the essence of contemplation itself: and indeed

one of the best definitions has described that art as a "loving

sight," a "peering into heaven with the ghostly eye." But the self

who is yet at this early stage of the pathway to Reality is not

asked to look at anything new, to peer into the deeps of things:

only to gaze with a new and cleansed vision on the ordinary

intellectual images, the labels and the formula, the "objects" and

ideas--even the external symbols--amongst which it has always

dwelt. It is not yet advanced to the seeing of fresh landscapes: it

is only able to re-examine the furniture of its home, and obtain

from this exercise a skill, and a control of the attention, which

shall afterwards be applied to greater purposes. Its task is here to

consider that furniture, as the Victorines called this preliminary

training: to take, that is, a more starry view of it: standing back

from the whirl of the earth, and observing the process of things.

Take, then, an idea, an object, from amongst the common stock,

and hold it before your mind. The selection is large enough: all

sentient beings may find subjects of meditation to their taste, for

there lies a universal behind every particular of thought, however

concrete it may appear, and within the most rational propositions

the meditative eye may glimpse a dream.

"Reason has moons, but moons not hers!

Lie mirror'd on her sea,

Confounding her astronomers

But, O delighting me."

Even those objects which minister to our sense-life may well be

used to nourish our spirits too. Who has not watched the intent

meditations of a comfortable cat brooding upon the Absolute

Mouse? You, if you have a philosophic twist, may transcend such

relative views of Reality, and try to meditate on Time,

Succession, even Being itself: or again on human intercourse,

birth, growth, and death, on a flower, a river, the various

tapestries of the sky. Even your own emotional life will provide

you with the ideas of love, joy, peace, mercy, conflict, desire.

You may range, with Kant, from the stars to the moral law. If

your turn be to religion, the richest and most evocative of fields is

open to your choice: from the plaster image to the mysteries of


But, the choice made, it must be held and defended during the

time of meditation against all invasions from without, however

insidious their encroachments, however "spiritual" their disguise.

It must be brooded upon, gazed at, seized again and again, as

distractions seem to snatch it from your grasp. A restless

boredom, a dreary conviction of your own incapacity, will

presently attack you. This, too, must be resisted at sword-point.

The first quarter of an hour thus spent in attempted meditation

will be, indeed, a time of warfare; which should at least convince

you how unruly, how ill-educated is your attention, how

miserably ineffective your will, how far away you are from the

captaincy of your own soul. It should convince, too, the most

common-sense of philosophers of the distinction between real

time, the true stream of duration which is life, and the sequence

of seconds so carefully measured by the clock. Never before has

the stream flowed so slowly, or fifteen minutes taken so long to

pass. Consciousness has been lifted to a longer, slower rhythm,

and is not yet adjusted to its solemn march.

But, striving for this new poise, intent on the achievement

of it, presently it will happen to you to find that you have

indeed--though how you know not--entered upon a fresh plane of

perception, altered your relation with things.

First, the subject of your meditation begins, as you surrender to

its influence, to exhibit unsuspected meaning, beauty, power. A

perpetual growth of significance keeps pace with the increase of

attention which you bring to bear on it; that attention which is the

one agent of all your apprehensions, physical and mental alike. It

ceases to be thin and abstract. You sink as it were into the deeps

of it, rest in it, "unite" with it; and learn, in this still, intent

communion, something of its depth and breadth and height, as we

learn by direct intercourse to know our friends.

Moreover, as your meditation becomes deeper it will defend you

from the perpetual assaults of the outer world. You will hear the

busy hum of that world as a distant exterior melody, and know

yourself to be in some sort withdrawn from it. You have set a

ring of silence between you and it; and behold! within that

silence you are free. You will look at the coloured scene, and it

will seem to you thin and papery: only one amongst countless

possible images of a deeper life as yet beyond your reach. And

gradually, you will come to be aware of an entity, a You, who

can thus hold at arm's length, be aware of, look at, an idea--a

universe--other than itself. By this voluntary painful act of

concentration, this first step upon the ladder which goes--as the

mystics would say--from "multiplicity to unity," you have to

some extent withdrawn yourself from that union with unrealities,

with notions and concepts, which has hitherto contented you; and

at once all the values of existence are changed. "The road to a

Yea lies through a Nay." You, in this preliminary movement of

recollection, are saying your first deliberate No to the claim

which the world of appearance makes to a total possession of

your consciousness: and are thus making possible some contact

between that consciousness and the World of Reality.

Now turn this new purified and universalised gaze back upon

yourself. Observe your own being in a fresh relation with things,

and surrender yourself willingly to the moods of astonishment,

humility, joy--perhaps of deep shame or sudden love--which

invade your heart as you look. So doing patiently, day after day,

constantly recapturing the vagrant attention, ever renewing the

struggle for simplicity of sight, you will at last discover that there

is something within you--something behind the fractious,

conflicting life of desire--which you can recollect, gather up,

make effective for new life. You will, in fact, know your own

soul for the first time: and learn that there is a sense in which this

real You is distinct from, an alien within, the world in which

you find yourself, as an actor has another life when he is not on

the stage. When you do not merely believe this but know it; when

you have achieved this power of withdrawing yourself, of making

this first crude distinction between appearance and reality, the

initial stage of the contemplative life has been won. It is not

much more of an achievement than that first proud effort in

which the baby stands upright for a moment and then relapses to

the more natural and convenient crawl: but it holds within it the

same earnest of future development.