‘But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father-Mother in private. Then your Father-Mother, who sees everything, will reward you.’ - Jesus
This is the basis for this month’s reflection, Open Mind, Open Heart, by Fr Thomas Keating. It was quite an interesting read with plenty of great practical guidance on centering prayer. I won’t go into much detail about the practical but will, instead, focus on the experiential part of the book. For if ‘centering prayer’ is anything, it is experiential.
This book is about leading the follower of Jesus into the tradition of contemplation through the tool of centering prayer. For years, especially here in the US, contemplation and meditation have been looked down upon. It has been seen as an ‘Eastern’, non-Christian, even demonic, practice with which the true Christian has no business. However, this has not always been the case. For almost the entire history of the Church, contemplation and meditation have been a part of the every day practice of the followers of Jesus. And not just for the clergy or those with a special calling from God. No. ‘[Contemplation] is a fundamental constituent of human nature and hence available to every human being’ (Ibid.)
‘Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century . . . described contemplation as the knowledge of God that is impregnated with love. For Gregory, contemplation is the fruit of the reflection on the word of God in scripture and at the same time a gift of God. It is a resting in God. In this resting or stillness the mind and heart are not actively seeking [God] but are beginning to experience, to taste, what they are seeking (pg. 141, An Overview of Contemplative Prayer in the Christian Tradition).
Further on in this chapter, Fr Keating shows that the more Christianity became an institution, the less it was about contemplation. ‘Around the twelfth century,’ he writes, ‘a marked development . . . took place. The great schools of theology were founded. It was the birthplace of precise analysis . . . Unfortunately this passion for analysis in theology was later to be transferred to the practice of prayer and bring to an end the spontaneous prayer of the Middle Ages based on lectio divina with its opening to contemplation’ (pg. 142). And by the time of the Reformation and beyond, prayer had been divided into ‘compartmentalized units entirely separate from one another . . . The organic development of prayer toward contemplation did not fit into the approved categories and was therefore discouraged’ (pgs. 143, 144).
In any case, the post-Reformation teaching opposed to contemplation was the direct opposite of the earlier tradition. That tradition, taught uninterruptedly for the first fifteen centuries, held that contemplation is the normal evolution of a genuine spiritual life and hence is open to all Christians (pg 149).
But it seems to me that contemplation is making a comeback in a very strong way. Especially among those who would classify themselves as ‘spiritual’. I must confess here that I fell into that category I mentioned earlier that saw meditation as something other than Christian. It has taken me some time, but I feel like I’m getting more comfortable with it. But why was I like this? Why was something that was ‘taught uninterruptedly for the first fifteen centuries’ such an issue for me and is still an issue with most followers of Christ in this country? I think it has to do with several reasons.
If one were to go to any local Christian bookstore (or even perhaps those online) and looked through the many books on prayer, one would be hard pressed to find any mention of mediation much less seeing it as an ‘organic development’ of prayer. Second, and this is in direct relation to the first, our clergy (for the most part) don’t teach classes or give homilies (or write the afore mentioned books) about contemplative prayer and meditation. I’m not certain of this but I think this may be more so in Protestant traditions than other Christian traditions. But, as I stated previously, the practices of contemplation and meditation are swelling among spiritual practitioners world over, and, like those who are flying coach, Christians are now getting on board and rediscovering this ancient practice. And centering prayer is but one part of this tradition - the introduction, if you will.
So, what is ‘centering prayer’? Centering prayer is ‘a movement of Divine Love designed to renew the contemplative Christian tradition’ (pg. 2, Introduction). It is ‘an exercise . . . of intention’ (pg. 27). That intention is the key. The intention of centering prayer is union with God. ‘Divine union is the goal of all Christians’ (pg. 18). The intention, therefore, is that we are saying to God, ‘Here I am. Do with me what you will’. We are not looking for special knowledge or feelings or whatever. We are expecting to find God deep within us. The point is that through centering prayer, we are intending to be united with God.
By meditating on the words of Jesus quoted above, the great contemplatives saw that this ‘going away by yourself and shutting the door’ was an interior thing. And as I was reflecting on that, some passages came to my mind (I’m sure you could add some more):
Psalm 37.7a. Be still in the presence of [God], and wait patiently for [God] to act.
Psalm 46.10a. Be still, and know that I am God!
Isaiah 28.12. God has told [the] people, ‘Here is a place of rest; let the weary rest here. This is a place of quiet rest.’
Mark 6.31. Then Jesus said, 'Let's go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.'
This quiet place, then, doesn’t need to be at a specific location - like your study or a cathedral or a ‘prayer closet’, though, when beginning, this would be beneficial. But it is the place where one goes to become united with God. And that, Fr Keating, along with the great mystics of old, tell us, is internally. In Chapter 12, Guidelines for Christian Life, Growth, and Transformation (pg 158ff), Fr Keating states, ‘Solitude is not primarily a place but an attitude of total commitment to God.’
This may all sound interesting, but how does one do centering prayer? Fr Keating recommends two twenty minute sessions - once in the morning and once in the late afternoon or early evening (or, if you can’t do the later one, extend the morning session). Find a comfortable place that is relatively quite. Sit in a comfortable position, preferably a chair with good support (but a bench in a park or a grassy hillside will do just as well or better than well). Sit up straight with your hands on your thighs. Close your eyes (The reason for this is that a lot of what we think about actually comes from what we see). Next:
Reflection on the word of God in Scripture and in our personal history is the foundation of centering prayer. The spontaneous letting go of particular thoughts and feelings in a prayer is a sign of progress. Centering prayer is characterized not so much by the absence of thoughts and feelings as by detachment from them (pg 27).
When these thoughts come, do not dwell on them - just let them ‘float’ by like clouds in the sky. But, if you find yourself dwelling on a thought (or thinking, ‘Hey, I’m not dwelling on thoughts,’ which, of course, means that you are dwelling on that thought!) Fr Keating suggests a ‘sacred word’. A word of one or two syllables but without emotional content. When we seem to become attached to a thought, gently say the sacred word inwardly. The sacred word is to show your intention. ‘The sacred word is the symbol to consenting to God’s presence’ (pg 65). To say, in essence, ‘I am here and waiting to be with you Loving God.’ The point of these times of centering prayer is not to expect anything or do anything. It is about being. Being in God’s presence. Wanting to be in complete unity with God. Of making oneself available to God. No other intentions. No other reasons. Just to be with God. And, once this become a habit, we will start being aware of God with us at all times. Just as we don’t think about the air we breath until we need it, the same takes place when we intend to be with God. Then, we will realize that God is with us.
This book is a great read for those who are on the journey and looking to go deeper. Those who know that there is something missing in their lives, the practices in this book (and I have just brushed the surface here) will start one on a great and grand adventure. I mean, what could be a greater adventure that being united with our Loving God?
In the Love of the Three in One,