"Every meditation is a thought, but every thought is not meditation."
Meditation in the Christian tradition is not always easy to understand and can be difficult to adopt into a person’s spiritual life. Yet, when understood properly, meditation is something we already do quite often during prayer, but it differs greatly from the ordinary activity of our mind.
According to St. Francis de Sales in his Treatise on the Love of God, “Every meditation is a thought, but every thought is not meditation.” In other words, we might believe we are in the depths of meditation, when in fact we are simply thinking “thoughts” and nowhere near meditation.
St. Francis de Sales continues on, giving some examples and explaining the differences more concretely.
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.
Meditation, for St. Francis de Sales, is “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.” Or in other words, “Meditation is mystical rumination.”
In this sense, meditation differs from ordinary thoughts because it is a deliberate use of the mind to think about a particular divine subject. It requires an ability to think over and over again about God or his Church. This means meditation is much more focused and allows a soul the opportunity to dig deeper than it would if it were simply thinking about a variety of topics.
The next time you sit down for meditation, examine your experience and see if your thoughts are meditations that lead you to a greater knowledge and love of God, or if they are only “thoughts” that fly “from from one flower to another, without drawing anything from them.”