Q&A with Matthew McWhorter

We are pleased to have Matthew McWhorter on our blog to discuss his book Meditation as Spiritual Therapy. Matthew R. McWhorter is assistant professor at Divine Mercy University.

Q: Meditation in the popular imagination isn’t usually thought of in connection with Christianity/Catholicism. Can you explain a little bit about how this isn’t totally an accurate perception?

A: Based on my experience of how Catholicism is usually represented in the contemporary American media, it seems possible that the popular imagination concerning Catholic-Christian practice might picture the celebration of the mass, community vocal prayer, or reading Scripture, but not think of meditation, especially if a person understands meditation primarily as focusing concentration and does not understand it as an exercise that culminates with one orienting one’s mental attention (the apex mentis) toward God. My motive in writing this book was to respond to concerns expressed by some students with whom I have worked that meditation or mindfulness practice (a common feature in civil psychotherapy today) is inherently non-Christian or incompatible with Christianity. This is not the case if we consider the past religious practice of rule-focused claustral Christians (cloistered monks, nuns, and canons regular). On one hand, some scholars maintain that “meditation” for the early Christian monks in Egypt (c. 325) denoted a practice involving the verbal recitation of Scripture, an exercise that these monks employed to help them commit Scripture to memory. And this may indeed be what St. Benedict (d. 547) has in mind when mentioning meditation in his Rule (see the Latin of Ch. 8). On the other hand, as the Catholic-Christian claustral traditions develop, especially into the Carolingian era (c. 800), one begins to see discussions of meditation as a distinct type of spiritual or mental exercise involving reflection on what one has read. The practice of meditation in this sense expands to include self-reflection and consideration of one’s relationships, especially one’s relationship with God. There is an explicit discussion of self-reflection or mindfulness in the writings of Benedictine Abbot Smaragdus (d. 840) (see for example The Crown of Monks, Ch. 96). This author, along with St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, and Benedictine monk Hildemar of Corbie, all contribute to St. Bernard’s teaching on meditation that he communicates to Pope Eugene III in De consideratione (c. 1150).

Q: Was St. Bernard of Clairvaux really ahead of his time in connecting mental health and mind/body treatment to his vocation?

A: The publications of French Benedictine monk Jean Leclercq (d. 1993) led me to examine how Bernard might have provided others not only with moral exhortation to grow in the virtues (in imitation of Christ), but also provided a special kind of spiritual direction that touched on psychological topics. Today these topics might be associated with mental health, for example, cultivating one’s ability to withstand stress (resilience), one’s ability to assume new roles, communicate well, and balance competing obligations (coordination of relationships), one’s awareness of one’s behavioral patterns and honesty with oneself regarding one’s limits and boundaries (self-knowledge), as well as one’s ability to monitor one’s mind in a way that will contribute to managing life’s various difficulties (self-regulation). It is important not to project our modern mental health categories back into Bernard’s medieval context, but these psychological topics are authentically present in Bernard’s correspondence with Pope Eugene III.  

Q: Your book ends with a look at how Bernard’s teaching can be interpreted for a contemporary audience and teaching. Can you give a few pointers on this?

A: In the third part of the book, I propose a contemporary interpretation of Bernard’s teaching that aims to consolidate his various suggestions to Pope Eugene III. I attempt to outline and formulate these teachings in a way that might be accessible for persons today who are seeking spiritual direction or spiritually-integrated civil psychotherapy. My concern in this part of the book is not limited to an effort to distill a description of mental health from the writings of Bernard (as described just above). Rather, I am also interested in how Bernard’s complete teaching on claustral meditation might be adopted by interested Catholic-Christian persons today. Someone, for example, might be seeking treatment for an anxiety disorder but want to do so in a way that integrates into their therapeutic goals discussion of God, the practice of prayer, and participation in the Catholic sacraments. Such a person might find Bernard’s teaching on meditation to be an additional resource for facilitating personal growth. Key pointers from Bernard in his teaching are (a) the exercise of meditation requires practice (quietude, repetition, perseverance) and (b) one should let the Holy Spirit take the lead as one’s guide when exploring the depths of the spiritual life.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you came across in your research?

A: I found it noteworthy to confirm the insights of Jean Leclercq mentioned above, namely, that Bernard in his correspondence with Pope Eugene III indeed touches on features of the Pope’s “mental health” (using this phrase anachronistically in a contemporary “civil” sense that is general and not specific to any one religion). Beyond this point, the most striking image that stayed with me after completing this research was the portrayal of Bernard himself meditating in crowded public places (as described in the Vita prima by one of his early medieval biographers). How was Bernard’s behavior perceived by his contemporaries? Was it socially acceptable for monks at the time to meditate in public in this way?

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