They could be called the "new mysties. They are neither hermits in remote monasteries nor youthful seekers who embrace the latest pop religion and they are not seeking an escape from the world.
They attend church but do not find in the busy Sunday morning worship the spiritual sustenance they require to undergird their active lives as clergy, bureaucrats, teachers, housewives secretaries and journalists.
So they have turned to meditation, a form of disciplined daily prayer that is traditional in most religions but has been neglected and misunderstood in Christian worship in this country.
The mediator's goal is to realize more vividly the presence of God in their lives and to find greater calm and inner peace. Their path of God is a retreat into silence for as many as three hours a day, using the traditional meditation techniques of oriental religions and Western Christian prayer.
Transcendental Meditaion, the Hare Krishna movement and other imported practices heavily influenced by Hinduism also claim to do this, but much of their appeal has been to the young and to dropouts from Protestant churches and Catholicism.
THe "new mystics" believe deeply in their Protestant or Catholic faith. But they believe that inward cultivation of holiness has been lost amid the emphasis on external Christian practice.
"There is an incredible spiritual hunger, and people are looking for where it can be met and not exploited," said the Rev. Henry Atkins, an Episcopal priest who has been a student of Zen Buddhism for four years. "People are beginning to realize that prayerful contemplation is not limited to monks in monasteries," he said.
Atkins leads "spiritual formation" groups here at the Metropolitan Ecumenical Training Center Inc.
He took up Zen in 1972 when he realized that his faith was a "political faith" bound up in fighting racism and pressing for human rights, he said.
"I had lost touch with the ground of my faith, and my political faith was not enough to sustain me. I began to talk with other priests about prayer and, surprisingly enough, most of them said very little about it, as if it were embarrassing," he said.
"In a group of clergy I was particularly close to, I raised questions about prayer and there was this silence as if they had been found out. I eventually went to some monasteries and found out they had lost it, too. They were too busy worrying about administration," he said.
As indications of the growing interest in Christian meditation, spiritual formation institiutes such as the one at METC are springing up around the nation. Some Protestant churches, in which the notion of long silent prayer is practically foreign, now sponsor weekend silent retreats. Even more of such activity is occuring in Catholic churches.
A recognition of the common ground between Christianity and Oriental religions has sparked appreciation of using all established forms of meditation to reach the same purpose - knowing God.
One person who hae turned to Buddhism to understand Christianity better is the Rev. Tilden Edwards, METC director and an Episcopal priest.
Four years ago he began studying with a Tibetan Buddhist lama in Berkeley, Calif. He said the experience has given him a fresh perspective on Christianity.
Atkins and Edwards believe that Buddhism will make a lasting impression in the United States by incorporation into Christianity rather than remaining apart as a sect.
"We are Western and have an enormous tradition in Western symbols and faith," Edwards said. "I have a personal commitment to Jesus as my guide. It would be very difficult to go into the Eastern traditions fully and give up Christianity."
In weekly sessions at METC and in daily disciplines followed by the participants, techniques such as yoga. silent meditation, chanting, internal visualization of a cross or a ball of light, and dance are a few methods used to help meditators reach deeper levels of consciousness.
Most religions have complementary practices. For example, in Christianity and Zen meditation, one enters a nonconceptual level of reality that is quiet, empty and silent. The meditator ignors the stream of consciousness that passes across the surface of the mind.
Chanting the Eastern Orthodox prayer of "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" is similar to the form and intent of Oriental mantras.
The Rev. Thomas Keating, abbot of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass., has developed a "prayer of centering," based on traditional Catholic contemplative prayer. He has written that although God is all around, "we just have to stop 'doing' and begin to 'be' in His presence . . . Then we can go back to our ordinary world with this new awareness."
A byproduct of meditation, according to many who have done it, is a sharper ability to respond adequately to situations and people in daily life. The Buddhist term for this is "compassion."
Critics of this path toward God usually argue either that it accommodates CHristianity to non-Christian religions or that it detracts from the social and political struggles in which Christians should be involved.
Dolores Leckey, a Catholic, says meditation has led to new awareness of her social responsibilities. She says that her life is more simple, less materialistic and that she contributes 10 per cent of here salary from part-time teaching to the poor. A wife and mother of four teen-agers, she attends mass daily in Arlington and reserves some additional quiet time for herself.
"We've come out of a very activist period, and it was very good. But there is a swing toward getting in touch with why we do these actions. From meditationi emerges a fresh interest in social action, a prodding from within," she said.