Centering Prayer*

Centering prayer is an ancient contemplative practice newly described for opening the mind and the heart to the presence of God. It is not so much a technique as a letting go, a willingness to surrender to the reality by which we are sustained but of which we are typically only intermittently aware thanks to the thoughts (emotions, perceptions, feelings, images, sensations, memories, reflections) that are constantly cluttering our mind. Practically speaking, it could not be simpler: twice a day, find a comfortable sitting position, close your eyes, let go of all thoughts, and consent to God's presence, ideally for about twenty minutes. Sound doable?

Having a timer helps, since the first thought that is likely to arise is worry about whether one is sitting and consenting for long enough--or too long. Having a sacred word helps, too. This is the way Father Thomas Keating, on whose teaching the contemporary practice of centering prayer largely depends, describes the use of this word: "The sacred word is a way of letting go of casual thoughts and of disengaging from the more interesting ones that come down the stream of consciousness. It does this not by attacking thoughts directly but by reaffirming your intention to consent to God's presence and action within."* Signficantly, it is not a mantra so much as a symbol of one's intent to consent; the point is not to repeat it so much as to let it let one's thoughts go, gently as a feather brushing against a fluff of cotton or a drop of dew forming on a blade of grass. And that's all there is to it. Letting go.

And then what? Apparently, nothing. No great spiritual insights, no blissful experiences of consolation, no ecstasies, no feelings of power or energy. Nothing. For, paradoxically, all of these things would themselves be thoughts, reflexions on the presence of God, not the presence of God itself which is beyond thought. Having such experiences would be proof not of the success, but rather of the failure of one's prayer. Except that failure itself is a thought that one needs to practice letting go, because in this prayer, one cannot fail because there is nothing to do other than form the intention to consent to the presence of God. Even if one's mind is instantly flooded with thoughts, one has not failed. Thoughts come and go, in Father Keating's imagery, like boats on the river of consciousness. The point is not to try to suppress all thoughts, the boats will always be there. The thing to do--or not do--is simply let them go by, paying no attention to whether they are there or not.

There are benefits. Again, in Father Keating's words: "The inner dynamism of contemplative prayer leads naturally to the transformation of your whole personality. Its purpose is not limited to your moral improvement. It brings about a change in your way of perceiving and responding to reality. This process involves a structural change of consciousness."* But, again, the experience of such change is not its point: "The purpose of centering prayer is not to experience peace but to evacuate the unconscious obstacles to the permanent abiding state of union with God. Not contemplative prayer but the contemplative state is the purpose of our practice; not experiences, however exotic or reassuring, but the permanent and abiding awareness of God that comes through the mysterious restructuring of consciousness."* Indeed, the practice of centering prayer is as likely to bring spiritual darkness as it is light, depending on what God intends for us. This, indeed, is perhaps its hardest lesson: God is present even when we have no experience of Him, even in our darkest nights of spiritual dryness or drought.

I've been in a drought for years now. Okay, maybe that's a little overly dramatic. But it has been a very long time since I can remember having any feelings of spiritual consolation, never mind of the presence of God. Mind you, at the time that I was experiencing them, I didn't actually realize what they were, I always thought they were simply intimations of greater ecstasies still beyond my reach. Now, in the drought, I can perhaps better appreciate them. No, I've never had what others seem to describe as a mystical experience, but there have been times in my life when I have felt deep consolation, even (if only momentarily) bliss. At such moments, I typically burst into tears. I have also had moments of great intellectual and spiritual excitement, when I was more aware of the presence of beauty in my life and in the world; and moments of great compassion for others, the sense of being one with all of the people around me. It is saddening to realize that I haven't had such experiences in a while now.

But what if, as Father Keating says, such experiences were always beside the point? Not about consenting to the presence of God at all, but rather, again, simply thoughts best left to float by? I've been suspicious of what people call spiritual exercises for some time now, and Keating's teaching on centering prayer is helping me perhaps see why I was right to be. "Oh, if only," I used to tell myself, "you could just practice your yoga more diligently, pray more affectively, imagine Christ and the Virgin Mary more vividly, then you would experience something truly wonderful, better than the trippiest trip, more profound than the most intellectual thought, more ecstatic than the most sensual orgasm!" It is, I am now embarrassed to admit, what I've been searching for: bliss, rapture, what have you. And I was deceived. Okay, maybe not deceived; but definitely misguided. Ecstasy is not the point. Consenting to the presence of God is.

I think I can practice that. I know I want to.

*Quotations from Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: 20th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum, 2008), pp. 22, 97, 102.

Comments

  1. Hya Fencing Bear!I have just started blogging so this is all new to me. Thank you for your concise summing up of Centering Prayer. I have been 'doing my 20 mins in the am and pm' for about 6 months now and have been greatly helped. In my blog I have decided to focus my attention on the concept of spirituality and have spent some time just catching up with myself as to why this whole subject interests me. Maybe we could be of mutual help to one another through this blog thing! Whatever God bless and thank you for your contribution

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  2. Welcome, Baroo! I'm happy to hear that you found my description of Centering Prayer useful. I've only been practicing it myself for about a month now, but it is one of the most powerful prayer techniques I have tried. I am looking forward to learning more about how others have come to this practice; thanks so much for your comment!

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Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!

F.B.

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