“Choose a suitable time for reflection and frequently consider the loving-kindness of God.” -Thomas a Kempis
Welcome back. Prayer can be a time of making our requests known to God. It can be a time of crying out for help. It can be a habit before a meal. We forget, though, that prayer can be a time of moving toward utter stillness and listening. This type of prayer is called Centering Prayer. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon reminds us that, as humans, we should be careful to approach the throne of God with few words, writing, “Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.” That stings a bit! I can almost see this sacrifice of fools in my own life: that I approach God with my busy life, offer many words that I think should be important to God, and go away the same man. Centering Prayer can be traced back to the writings of one of the desert fathers named John Cassian (c. 360 – 430), who came from the west to the desert to learn the ways of contemplative prayer. If you can get it, read his book, The Conferences. It’s a collection of his thoughts and conversations with the desert fathers written to acquaint the Western Church with the teachings of the desert fathers. In this work, he writes about a conference with Abba Isaac on the topic of true prayer. Abba Isaac prescribes a formula for prayer that will assist us “to maintain an unceasing recollection of God” by keeping it ever before us. The formula, Cassian writes, is this: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” Obviously, there is nothing magical or mystical in the mindless recitation of a mantra. But should you recite it with a heart-felt stirring, a desire for God to really do as you are asking, Isaac says the result is that “by God’s light the mind mounts to the manifold knowledge of God, and thereafter feeds on mysteries loftier and more sacred…the prayer wherein, like a spark leaping up from a fire, the mind is rapt upward, and, destitute of the aid of senses or of anything else visible or material, pours out its prayers to God.” [Pennington (1980) 11,12] It is this approach, brought forth by Cassian, that was the primary influence on monastic practice for over 1000 years.
In the 14th Century, there was an anonymous mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing. This is the first of the spiritual classics in our language, and is a reaction to the intellectualization of theology and spirituality. This work admonishes follower of Christ to return to a prayer of the heart, giving techniques and ideas on moving into existential realities of contemplation and silence. This unknown mystic takes the prayer of Abba Isaac and combines it with the discipline of utter stillness and silence in an effort to accomplish a centering prayer. Johnston writes, “Here is what you are to do: lift up your heart to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring Him for His own sake and not for His gifts. Center all your attention and desire on Him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. Do all in your power to forget everything else, keeping your thoughts and desires free from involvement with any of God’s creatures or their affairs in general or in particular. Perhaps this will seem like an irresponsible attitude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no attention to them.” [Johnston, ch. 3]
Unlike the Jesus Prayer, it’s not a repetitive model. The one praying is encouraged to choose a simple, monosyllabic word, like “hope” or “Christ.” During this time, when the mind is distracted or chooses to wander, the word is used to bring it back to focus. In The Cloud, this silence is pointed to as the quiet of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. The NRSV calls it “sheer silence.” The anonymous mystic also points to Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus in Luke 10. While Martha goes about the rigors of preparation and necessary tasks of the “active life,” Mary sits at Jesus feet serving as an example of the contemplative life. In the midst of the busyness of the moment, Mary forgot all and was completely wrapped in His presence, turning to Him with all of her heart. It’s not that she observed Him, noting His body, voice, or odor, but she centered on Him and is basking in His love for her. This is what makes Centering Prayer different from Ignatian meditation (a form of meditation where the one meditating place themselves into the Biblical narrative and imagines being there in the action as the narrative unfolds around them).
In Practice, the Centering Prayer has been practiced with many minute differences, but these 5 steps are the essentials that seem to be in common with all of the various forms.
Step 1: Find a place to sit comfortably, and with your eyes closed, let yourself settle down. Let go of all tensions, worries, thoughts, sensations you feel and think about God’s love for you. Begin to rest for the moment in God’s love as Mary did. Remember, He is the God that dwells in you.
Step 2: Effortlessly, take up a word, a symbol of your desire/intention to give yourself completely to Him and His presence, and let that word be gently present, a murmur of your mind rather than an asserted point. The word should be monosyllabic and should communicate God’s love to and for you.
Step 3: When you become aware of your thoughts, or you begin to notice sensations, or as internal sensations arise, use that as a signal to return to your word again. This helps to affirm your desire to separate from the external and to go rest in God’s presence.
Step 4: If your thoughts do subside and you find yourself resting or restfully aware, you can even let go of the word. Just be in that stillness. When thoughts begin to stir again, gently return to that word. Answer your thoughts with that one word. For instance, as I practiced this method, my word was “peace.” As I sat in silence, and began to rest, my mind drifted to a retreat I was planning for. My internal “to do” list popped up. But, in response to that desire to plan/prepare/work, I said, “peace.” “Jason, you need to be getting ready.” “Peace.” What if no one shows up?” “Peace.” What if it doesn’t go as planned?” “Peace.” “peace” was my response to my thoughts, questions, and anxieties.
Step 5: At the end of your prayer time (I’m working towards 20 minutes in the morning and 20 in the evening), take a couple of minutes to come out of the silence, like coming back into reality at the end of a massage. This is a great time to express your thanks to God for His care for you, and to lift others to Him for His care.
Give it a try. See what happens, and check back for more later. If you’d like to read more about his topic, and some of the others I’ve been talking about, check out www.lectiodivina.org/centering .
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