Solitude Improved

Nathanael Ranew died in 1677, "a judicious divine, and a good historian."[1] He had served as vicar in Felsted, Essex, until his ejection in 1662 for nonconformity, after which he moved twenty miles south to teach in the town of Billericay. Well-regarded during his lifetime, he is now most known for his book, Solitude Improved by Divine Meditation, described as "One of the best books upon the subject."[2] If that is the case, Ranew's book would seem especially relevant for today, when meditation is often heavily misunderstood (if not entirely ignored).

In Solitude Improved, Ranew explains what meditation is, why it is necessary, and how it can be practiced. Here is a selection from the introduction:

Purposing some Improvement of Solitude in the late mournful year, when death was so largely commissioned to destroy by that dreadful pestilence, I made choice of this excellent subject of Divine Meditation. The best way of thinking and mind employing is this meditation. The right art and skill of it is a rare attainment. The due practice of it is a most noble self-entertainment.

A pious heart hath three happy ways of self-entertainment in solitary; three rare ways of being least alone, when most alone.

The first way of self-entertainment, is the ordinance of reading and searching the Holy Scriptures, the pure, perfect, and infallible word and will of Christ concerning us. There Christ hath prepared his rich feast of fat things full of marrow, and his royal banquet of heavenly truths. There he sets forth the great varieties of sure directions, precious promises, high examples, rare experiences, and the help of all his holy ordinances, to feed and satiate the hungry and thirsty spirit.

The second way of self-entertainment, is divine meditation, by either pondering of spiritual things, for improving knowledge, and exciting practice ; or by a weighing all other things whatever, for reducing them to a spiritual end and use.

The third way of self-entertainment, is private praying, such as is both founded on and bounded by Christ's will in his word ; such as is both prepared and assisted, made wise and warm by serious meditation.

Meditation stands between the two ordinances of reading and praying, as the grand improver of the former, and the high quickener of the latter, to furnish the mind with choice materials for prayer, and to fill the heart with holy fervency in it.

Ranew goes on to provide a general overview of meditation, highlighting key Scripture passages and employing a series of analogies: 

On that noble subject, and necessary duty, Divine Meditation, I have now chosen, by Christ's assistance, to speak to you.

Of meditation in general, according to Scripture latitude, in the various kinds and considerations of it there expressed. My text, therefore, must not be one single scripture, for the total foundation of what I shall tender, but the universal vote, and passages dispersed through the Bible, some of which are the following:

"Meditate upon these things" (1 Tim. 4:15). Here on Timothy, and, by way of proportion, on every person, is commanded meditation.

"In his law doth he meditate day and night" (Ps. 1:2). If the blessed man doth so meditate, then all who would be blessed must do the like.

"I will meditate on all thy work" (Ps. 77:12). Both the word and works of God must be the godly man's meditation.

"And meditate on thee in the night watches" (Ps. 63:6). And, "My meditation of him shall be sweet" (Ps. 104:34). God must be meditated on, and that meditation should be sweet.

From these and the like passages scattered over the Bible, the observation or conclusion is this: Pious meditation is the duty of every Christian; or, It is the high institution of Christ, and greatly incumbent duty of Christians, to exercise themselves much in holy meditation.
A rare and soul-enriching way; none know the sweetness and blessings of it, but such as exercise themselves in it.

Philosophers tell us there would be no life or motion in the lower world, if the sun and celestial bodies stood still. Physicians say if the heart did not continually beat in the body, there would be no life and motion in the little world, man. And experience proves, if there were no springs or weights in watches and artificial engines, they could perform nothing. What the sun, moon, and stars are to life and motion here below, what the heart is to the body's life and moving, and what the springs and weights are to motions artificial, that in a high degree is meditation to spiritual life and motion.

Of the various things tendered to us for truths, this is the great trier, the percolation and refiner, the melioration and improver. Such things that come to us crude and raw, become mellow and concocted by meditation. It is the golden scale to give divine things their due weight. The soul's rare alembic, to effect the highest operations, to extract the richest spirits for heart use.

Meditation is of that happy influence; it makes the mind wise, the affections warm, the soul fat and flourishing, and the conversation greatly fruitful.

Who can fail to practise it, continue it, contend to larger improvements in this heavenly art, that hath once experienced and fed upon the surpassing sweetness and refreshments, the unspeakable solaces and delights, both had and heightened in it!

To speak of it adequately I cannot; it is such an attainment that none know the all of it. Nothing but progress in the daily practice, can help to comprehend it. There is still a going and a knowing farther. [3] 

- - - - - - -

[1] Edmund Calamy, cited in Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 494.

[2] Edmund Calamy and Samuel Palmer, The Nonconformist's Memorial, vol. 2 (London: Button And Son, 1802), 199.

[3] Nathanael Ranew, Solitude Improved by Divine Meditation (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1839), vii, viii, 1–3.  

Ben Ciavolella is a student at Westminster Theological Seminary. He works as a publishing assistant and editor for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

Related Links

Solitude Improved by Divine Meditationavailable in paperback through Soli Deo Gloria Publications

"John Bunyan on Prayer" by Amy Mantravadi [ Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3 ]

"Patience and Maturity" by Gabriel Williams

The Valley of Vision [ Leather-Bound  |  Paperback ]

Sanctification: The Long Journey Home [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Sanctification, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download

Ben Ciavolella