Centering Prayer and the Importance of Silence in our Lives (Part Two)
I first encountered the idea of Centering Prayer when I went to the Cistercian monastery, Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, nestled against the Shenandoah River and the West side of the first mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway to make a retreat with the Abbot—Cistercian Father Dom Edward McCorkell, in 1983.
I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time. Many of you, my readers, have heard me speak of Father Edward and Holy Cross Abbey before in this blog, but in this in another blog to follow I want to share with you how Centering Prayer can enrich your life, and help to “center” you in God’s presence. Centering Prayer has been at the root of my contemplative life.
When I went to see Father Edward the first time I didn’t know what he was talking about! And it took me quite a while to learn because (as many of you know—and to the consternation of some) I have had issues with bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, and in those days I couldn’t sit still, so sitting for twenty minutes of silent prayer twice a day was quite a challenge indeed! But eventually I got the hang of it, learned to love it, and eventually I began to notice it working changes in my life.
Cistercian Father Thomas Keating, whom I quoted in my last blog, created an international organization to sustain the work of Centering Prayer called Contemplative Outreach.org. They send out little cards the size of a credit card that offer the Rules for Centering Prayer.
The one in my hand says on one side: “Allowing, Accepting Unconditional Love.” And on the other has four simple rules:
Choose a sacred word as the symbol your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and introduce the sacred word.
When engaged with thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word.
At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
It’s so simple; and like all things new such as dieting or starting an exercise program, the important part is one’s motivation; I have to ask do I want to do it? And do I have a sense of what I’m headed for?
Virtually every spiritual tradition has a sense of transformation or awakening and demands intentional silence as essential. Be it meditation of the Buddhist, the Sufis, mystical Judaism, or the contemplative prayer of Christians, there’s a common affirmation that the practice of regular silence is necessary.
But what is this “Transformation” or “Awakening”? Some New Age stuff? Hardly. Let the Gospels speak!
“You must be born again from above.” (John 3:)
“ Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ear dies, it remains just a single grain but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
“For whosoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me will find it,” (Matthew: 24-25)
Christianity is surely most interested in the total transformation of the human person.
The Method of Centering Prayer
Father Keating has developed a kind of cult around him with lots of humorous stories. He is said to have described the process of Centering Prayer as “taking a vacation from yourself.” All meditative practices actually intend to do that.
There are basically three kinds of practices: concentrative methods, awareness methods and surrender methods. Centering Prayer belongs to the last (and least common) category.
Concentrative methods, which are probably the most common, rely on attention in which the mind is given a simple task to focus on, mostly commonly a mantra, a sacred word repeated over and over.
Awareness methods are favored in Buddhist practice in which one aligns oneself with an inner observer and watches the play of energy as thoughts and emotions take form.
A surrender method is simpler. When a thought emerges into consciousness or takes form, one simply lets it go. Thomas Keating likes to denote this as a prayer “not of attention, not of intention.
So, our intention is to be totally open to God. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest whose book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, has assisted me in deepening my grasp of nuances of Centering Prayer says.
“Totally available, all the way down to the innermost point of your being, deeper than your feelings, deeper than your memories and your desires, deeper than your usual psychological self—even deeper than your presence! For even what will go on in this prayer is ‘in secret’ (the word in Matthew 6:6 that Jesus uses in his instructions on prayer: deeper than even your conscious mind and even your most bedrock sense of “I am here.” Hidden even from yourself, in that innermost sanctuary of your being—where, in the words of that most beloved monastic formula, your life is “hidden with Christ in God.” p.22.
In our intention it’s not possible to make ourselves empty or still. As soon as we focus on doing so, we’ll get a stream of thoughts about what to fix for dinner or what I forgot to put on our grocery list or what I was so mad about my husband or . . . All this is perfectly normal. All you have to do in Centering Prayer is: If you catch yourself thinking, you let the thought go.
Bourgeault: “If you find yourself tangled up in with a thought—no matter what kind of thought—you simply, gently let the thought go. You release it, thus bringing yourself back into alignment with your original intention, which was to maintain that bare, formless openness to God.”
Father Keating has a story about a nun who was frustrated on her first twenty-minute taste of Centering Prayer, lamenting, “Oh, Father Thomas, I’m such a failure at this prayer, In twenty minutes, I’ve had ten thousand thoughts.
“How, lovely, the Abbot responded, without missing a beat, ten thousand opportunities to return to God!”
Cynthia suggests that this simple story captures the essence of Centering Prayer in that it focuses on our intention to return to be open to God.
Years ago, I would rise early in the morning and have very fruitful sessions of prayer and then I fell out of practice for a number of years. I just returned to practice after a weekend retreat with Father Bill Sheehan, OMI (I’ll introduce you to him in my next and final blog on this subject.) And at present, the thoughts just keep coming, so I just have to stay with the sacred word. But Cynthia suggests, “even in those turbulent periods of prayer, when it seems like one thought after another, there are in fact tiny microscopic pauses when the thought drops out and the sacred word also drops out. These moments don’t last long, typically, but no one ever said that the Divine needed a lot of time to touch our innermost being.” Her words have been a consolation to me in my present somewhat meager practice.
She also consoles, “Whatever your mind serves you up is just fine.” And Father Keating has said the only thing you can do wrong is to get up and walk out. Father Keating emphasizes, even if you feel your efforts are unsuccessful, realize what it means to “consent to the presence and action of God within us” in whatever form it comes. The power of the prayer is in the consent.
The Sacred Word.
It’s a word you choose yourself. It could be a religious word, such as Jesus / Father, Abba / Kyrie / Come, Lord. Or it could be a word that describes a spiritual attitude, such as, open / still / be here / listen / let go.
Ms. Bourgeault, indicates that it’s easiest to describe what the sacred word is not.
First, it’s not a mantra; you don’t repeat it constantly. You only use it when you notice a thought arising.
Second, a sacred word is not a “special” word. It doesn’t sum up the height and depth of your love for God. It’s just a “place-holder, the finger-pointing to the moon of your intention.” It should be as simple and as emotionally neutral as possible.
Third, the sacred word is not a thought-suppressing word, or “a baseball bat to put down thoughts or replace them with itself.”
Time is what makes gradually makes the sacred word sacred. Over time, it will lodge itself in your unconscious and then start to work its magic.
It’ll pop up spontaneously when you start thinking. And after a while, you’ll notice it emerging in the middle of your life in stressful situations—in a traffic jam, or otherwise ungrounded in an argument at home. Therefore, think about your sacred as a long-time commitment; it will surprise you how helpful it will be for you.
And now my prayer for you . . . .
Dear God, After all these years
I finally realize how deeply you love me.
And I want so much for others to know
how much you love them too.
Help them to come to you in the silence of their hearts.
To know how deeply they also are loved.
And now, before you go, here’s a great song for you on this theme. Click here.