Most of us learned that Prayer is talking to God. Right? And so we babble on in our prayers and list all our needs, or say a rosary, or read Scripture—all certainly worthy methods of prayer, of course.
But how many of us really learned to listen to God in our prayer? That requires silence. And many of us are afraid of silence because we may not like what’s running around in our head.
However, true silence can be acquired. “Silence is God’s first language,” according the sixteenth century mystic Saint John of the Cross. When one enters into silence, that person, sooner or later comes into—and experiences the loving presence of God. To help facilitate the process and habit of entering into this kind of silence is what Centering Prayer is all about
If you permit me a little fun with you, perhaps you’ve noticed that I sign off on my writings by saying “contemplative writer.” When you say that word, by the way, it’s contemplative, not con-tem-play-tive. (Pronouncing it correctly will place you in the company of those who—ahem—know something about this stuff!
So, first, what is Contemplation?
We’ll let Cistercian monk Thomas Merton who was a monk of the Abbey of the Gethesemani in Bardstown, Kentucky tantalize you with his description of what contemplation is . . .
Contemplation is the highest expression of our intellectual and spiritual life. It
is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual
wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for
life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being
in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source.
Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that source. It knows that
source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason
and beyond simple faith. For contemplation is a kind of spiritual vision to which both
reason and faith aspire, by their very nature, because without it they must always
remain incomplete. Yet contemplation is not vision, because it sees ‘without seeing’
and knows ‘without knowing’. It is more profound depth of faith, knowledge too
deep to be grasped in images, in words or even in clear concepts. It can be
suggested by works, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it
know the contemplative mind takes back what it has said and denies what is has
affirmed. For in contemplation we know by ‘unknowing’. Or, better, we know
beyond all-knowing or ‘unknowing’.
Poetry, music and art have something in common with the contemplative
experience. But contemplation is beyond aesthetic intuition, beyond art, beyond
poetry. Indeed, it is also beyond philosophy, beyond speculative theology It
resumes, transcends and fulfils them all, and yet at the same time it seems, in a
certain way, top supersede and to deny them all. Contemplation is always beyond
our own knowledge, beyond our own light, beyond dialogue, beyond our own self.
In other words, then, contemplation reaches out to the knowledge and even
to the experience of the transcendent and inexpressible God. It knows God by
seeming to touch him. Or rather it knows him as if it had been invisibly touched by
him….Touched by him who has no hands, but who is pure reality and the source of
all that is real! Hence contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to
the real within all that is real. A vivid awareness of infinite being at the roots of our
own limited being. An awareness of our contingent reality as received, as a present
from God, as a free gift of love. This is the existential contact of which we speak
when we use the metaphor of being ‘touched by God.’
(From New Seeds of Contemplation / Burnes & Oates / 1999)
Well, Centering Prayer is not Contemplation itself, but is leading toward it. Contemplation—entering the presence of the holy—is what Centering prayer is designed to assist us with.
The rules for Centering prayer fit on a card the size of your credit card. They’re sent out by an organization called Contemplative Outreach.org, founded by another Cistercian Abbot Father Thomas Keating—who is really the founder of the Centering Prayer movement and long-time Abbot at Snowmass Abbey in Colorado. (We’ll get to those rules in our next blog.)
But first, in a brief article he gives a short Theological background for Centering Prayer.
The grace of Pentecost affirms that the risen Jesus is among us as the glorified Christ. Christ. Christ lives in each of us as the Enlightened One, present everywhere and at all times. He is the living Master who continuously sends the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and to bear witness to his resurrection by empowering us to experience and manifest the fruits of the Spirit and the Beatitudes both in prayer and in action.
Lectio Divina (Reflective reading of Sacred Scripture) is the most traditional way of cultivating friendship with Christ. It is a way of listening to the texts of scripture as if in conversation with Christ and he were suggesting topics of conversation. The daily encounter with Christ and reflection on his word leads beyond mere acquaintanceship to an attitude of friendship, trust and love. Conversation simplifies and gives way to communing, or as (Pope St.) Gregory the Great of the 6th century, summarizing the Christian contemplative tradition, put it, “resting in God.” This was the classical meaning of contemplative prayer for the first sixteen centuries.
Contemplative Prayer is the normal development of the grace of baptism and the regular practice of Lectio Divina. We may think of prayer as thought or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. Contemplative Prayer is a process of interior purification leading, if we consent, to divine union. The Method of Centering Prayer is a method designed to facilitate the development of contemplative prayer by preparing our faculties to cooperate with this gift. It is an attempt to present the teaching of an earlier time (e.g., The Cloud of Unknowing) in an updated form and to put a certain order and regularity into it. It is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer; it simply puts other kinds of prayer into a fuller perspective. During the time of prayer we consent to God’s presence and action within. At other times our attention moves outward to discover God’s presence everywhere.
In saying that contemplative prayer is the normal development of the grace of baptism, Father Keating is negating those who say that contemplation only belongs to those in the Contemplative Orders like the Cistercians or the Carmelites. His Contemplative Outreach movement that has crossed the globe and many religious traditions is quite revolutionary stuff!
In our next blog, we’ll look at how the process of a Centering Prayer session fits together. How ‘bout dat?
Now, before you go, here’s a contemplative hymn for you, Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. Click Here.