This word is much used in the holy Scriptures, and means simply an attentive and reiterated thought, proper to produce good or evil affections. In the first Psalm, the man is said to be blessed: Whose will is in the way of the Lord, and who in his law shall meditate day and night. But in the second Psalm: Why did the Gentiles rage, and the people meditate vain things? Meditation therefore is made as well for evil as for good. Yet whereas in the holy Scripture, the word meditation is ordinarily applied to the attention which we have to divine things to stir us up to love them, it has, as one might say, been canonized by the common consent of theologians, like the name, angel, and, zeal; as on the contrary the words, craft (dol), and, demons have been stigmatized: so that now when we say, meditation, we mean that which is holy, and that by which we begin mystical theology.
Every meditation is a thought, but every thought is not meditation. For we have thoughts to which our mind is carried without any design or aim, by way of simple musing, as we see common flies flying from from one flower to another, without drawing anything from them. And be this kind of thought as attentive as it may, it can never bear the name of meditation, but should simply be called thought. Sometimes we consider a thing attentively to learn its causes, its effects, its qualities, and this thought is named study; in which the mind acts as locusts do, which promiscuously fly upon flowers and leaves, to eat them and nourish themselves therewith. But when we think of divine things, not to learn, but to make ourselves love them, this is called meditating, and this exercise, Meditation; in which our spirit, not as a fly for simple amusement, nor as a locust to eat and be filled, but as a sacred bee, moves over the flowers of holy mysteries, to extract from them the honey of divine love.
Thus many persons are always dreaming, and engaged in unprofitable thoughts, almost without knowing what they are thinking about; and, which is noteworthy, they are only attentive to these thoughts inadvertently, and would wish not to have them; witness him who said: My thoughts are dissipated, tormenting my heart: many also study, and by a most laborious occupation fill themselves with vanity, not being able to resist curiosity: but there are few who meditate to inflame their heart with holy heavenly love. In fine, thoughts and study may be upon any subject, but meditation, in our present sense, has reference only to those objects whose consideration tends to make us good and devout. So that meditation is no other thing than an attentive thought, voluntarily reiterated or entertained in the mind, to excite the will to holy and salutary affections and resolutions.
The holy Word explains in a truly admirable manner, and by an excellent similitude, in what holy meditation consists. Ezechias wishing to express in his canticle the attentive consideration which he makes of his evil: I will cry, says he, like a young swallow, I will meditate like a dove. For, my dear Theotimus, if ever you took notice of it, the young swallows open their beaks very wide in their chirping, and, on the contrary, doves, above all birds, make their murmuring with their beaks close shut up, keeping their voices in their throat and breast, nothing passing outward but a certain resonant, echo-like sound; and this little murmuring equally serves them to express their griefs and to declare their loves. Ezechias, then, to show that in his calamity he made many vocal prayers, says: I will cry like a young swallow, opening my mouth, to utter before God many lamentable cries; and to testify also that he made use of holy mental prayer, he adds: I will meditate like a dove, turning and doubling my thoughts within my heart by an attentive consideration, to excite myself to bless and praise the sovereign mercy of my God, who has brought me back from death's gate, taking compassion on my misery. So Isaias says: We shall roar all of us like bears, and shall lament, meditating like doves, where the roaring of bears refers to the exclamations which we utter in vocal prayer, and the mourning of doves to holy meditation. But to make it appear that doves use their cooing on occasions not only of grief but also of love and joy, the sacred lover, describing the natural spring-time in order to express the beauties of the spiritual springtime, says: The voice of the turtle is heard in our land, because in the spring the turtle begins to glow with love, which she testifies by her more frequent song; and presently after: My dove, shew me thy face, let thy voice sound in my ears: for thy voice is sweet, and thy face comely. He means, Theotimus, that the devout soul is very agreeable unto him when she presents herself before him, and meditates to inflame herself with holy spiritual love. So he who had said, I will meditate like a dove: putting his conception into other words: I will think over again for thee, said he, all my years in the bitterness of my soul. For to meditate, and to think over again in order to move the affections, is the same thing. Hence Moses, exhorting the people to recall to mind the benefits received of God, adds this reason: That thou shouldst keep the commandments of the Lord thy God, and walk in his ways, and fear him. And Our Lord himself gave this command to Josue: Let not the book of this law depart from thy mouth: but thou shalt meditate on it day and night, that thou mayest observe and do all things that are written in it. What in one of the passages is expressed by the word, meditate, is declared in the other by, think over again, and to show that reiterated thought and meditation tend to move us to affections, resolutions and actions, it is said, as well in the one as the other passage, that we must think over again, and meditate in, the law, to observe and practise it. In this sense the apostle exhorts us thus: Think diligently upon him that endured such opposition from sinners against himself; that you be not wearied, fainting in your minds. When he says think diligently, it is as though he said meditate. But why would he have us to meditate the holy passion? Not that we should become learned, but that we should become patient and constant in the way of heaven. O how have I loved thy law, O Lord! says David: It is my meditation all the day. He meditates on the law because he loves it, and he loves it because he meditates on it.
Meditation is the mystical rumination required for not being unclean, to which one of the devout shepherdesses who followed the sacred Sulamitess invites us: for she assures us that holy writ is as a precious wine, worthy not only to be drunk, by pastors and doctors, but also to be diligently relished, and, so to speak, ruminated and turned over and over. Thy throat, says she (in which the holy words are formed) is like the best wine, worthy for my beloved to drink, and for his lips and his teeth to ruminate. So the blessed Isaac, as a chaste and pure lamb, went forth into the field, the day being now well spent, to make his retirement, his conference, and his exercise of spirit with God, that is, to pray and to meditate.
The bee flies from flower to flower in the spring-time, not at hazard but of set purpose, not only to be recreated in the verdant diapering of the meadows, but to gather honey; which having found, she sucks it up, and loads herself with it; then carrying it to her hive, she treats it skilfully, separating from it the wax, of which she makes comb, to store the honey for the ensuing winter. Such is the devout soul in meditation. She passes from mystery to mystery, not at random, or only to solace herself in viewing the admirable beauty of those divine objects, but deliberately and of set purpose, to find out motives of love or of some heavenly affection; and having found them she draws them to her, she relishes them, she loads herself with them, and having brought them back and put them within her heart, she lays up what she sees most useful for her advancement, by finally making resolutions suitable for the time of temptation. Thus in the Canticle of Canticles the heavenly spouse, as a mystical bee, settles, now on the eyes, now on the lips, on the cheeks, on the hair of her beloved, to draw thence the sweetness of a thousand passions of love, noting in particular whatever she finds best for this. So that, inflamed with holy love, she speaks with him, she questions him, she listens to him, sighs, aspires, admires him, as he on his part fills her with delight, inspiring her, touching and opening her heart, and pouring into it brightness, lights and sweetnesses without end, but in so secret a manner that one may rightly say of this holy conversation of the soul with God, what the holy text says of God's with Moses: that Moses being alone upon the top of the mountain spoke to God, and God answered him.