Centering Prayer - Contemplative Christianity
History and Practice
A BRIEF HISTORY
“You already know. The Spirit is with you and the Spirit is in you” ~ John 14:17
Contemplative practice is not new to Christianity. Early Christians in northern Egypt known as “Desert Fathers and Mothers” lived a monastic and egalitarian communal life rich in contemplative practice. After Constantine declared Christianity the official state religion in 325AD the corporate Roman church’s interest in a life including inner work began fading and ultimately Catholic seminarians began to view the practice in a pejorative manner thinking it best suited only for those living in cloistered community.
In the late 1950’s, Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s investigations into Zen and other Eastern mystical practices laid the groundwork preceding a reawakening in Christian contemplative practice. Merton asked, “Why do we think of the gift of contemplation, infused contemplation, mystical prayer, as something essentially strange and esoteric reserved for a small class of almost unnatural beings and prohibited to everyone else?”
During the early 1960’s, a group of Benedictine monks, familiar with Merton’s writing, were motivated to uncover why Christian seekers, excited by Eastern mysticism, were leaving the church. Curious as to what was propelling this, they investigated by quite literally driving only a few miles down the road from their monastery to a Zen Buddhist retreat centre.
The outcomes of these interfaith meetings birthed a Christian contemplative practice first called Prayer of the Cloud then later renamed Centering Prayer. It was developed by Thomas Keating, William Meninger, and John Main. Fr. Bebe Griffiths, who founded Shaninvanam Ashram in India, is a notable addition to this group. In India Griffiths developed a deep and nurturing communion between East and Western paths to the centre. This group of monks reinvigorated a tradition of deep contemplative practice.
Centering Prayer rests on two major stepping stones. That of “The Cloud of Unknowning”, a fourteenth century book written by an anonymous monk and St. John of the Cross as well as the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina. Lectio Divina (meaning divine reading) is audibly repeating scripture. Typically, one person reads a short passage to a small group, repeating the scriptures slowly three times over. First to hear the words, second to feel the words, and thirdly to taste and metaphorically consume the words. A lectio can also be done with music.
My primary teacher is Cynthia Bourgeault, a mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, retreat leader, and hermit, in addition to being a long-time advocate of the meditative practice of Centering Prayer. She has worked closely with fellow teachers and colleagues including Thomas Keating, Bruno Barnhart, and Richard Rohr.
While the actual history of Centering Prayer dates back only sixty years its origins are more than two thousand years old. There are currently Centering Prayer communities in more than 60 countries.
“How good it is to centre down! To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!”
The first step is to enter your inner door, which in this case is symbolized by the heart.
Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
When engaged with your 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.
*thoughts include body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections.
The Sacred Word
This word or phrase is designed to be used as a means of drawing one’s mind back to present time when it wanders. The phrase/word is freely chosen. Since the mind wanders during meditation using this tool calls us back to presence and if one meditates regularly the word/phrase may to be used frequently.
The only instruction offered while choosing my word/phrase was that it should remind me that the spirit lives within us as well as around us. My phrase is, “I am grounded in the One”. Ideally this phrase is designed to be my default thought when faced with emotional turmoil, frightening circumstances, grave danger or the like.
Apophatic and Kataphatic contemplation are two distinct terms that underpin Centering Prayer.
Apophatic is the exercise of pure faith. It is the act of resting in God beyond concepts, particularly to maintain a general loving attention to the divine presence.
Kataphatic is the exercise of the rational faculties enlightened by faith: the effective response to symbols, reflection, and the use of reason, imagination, and memory, to best assimilate the truths of faith.
A proper preparation of the faculties through kataphatic practise leads to apophatic contemplation, which in turn is sustained through suitable kataphatic practice.
These two concepts form an expanding, evolving loop of apophatic informing kataphatic and so on. The “goal”, if you will, of Centering Prayer is to arrive at a place of unitive consciousness. The trap here is that dualistic-based selfhood cannot attain unitive consciousness. With a subject-object polarity we may delight in and enjoy spiritual experiences but will be barred from what tradition calls the “illuminative stage”, a stage which the contemporary mystic Evelyn Underhill once likened to “basking like a pious tabby in the light of the divine.”
The overarching principle of Centering Prayer is to not actively search for revelation or enlightenment but rather to have the mind return to God when it wanders in order to create space. It is based on effortlessness, non-possessiveness, and non-resistance.
This quality of non- possessiveness including the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are akin to the traditional Buddhist teaching to “try to develop a mind that clings to nothing.” The only real direction in Centering Prayer is – “when you catch yourself thinking, you let the thought go”. It is an ongoing act of spiritual non-possessiveness.
A defining quality of Centering Prayer is to view it as a methodology for nurturing the heart. Many methods of meditation aim for clarity of the mind. Centering Prayer aims for purity of the heart. It is no mystery to me that Thich Nhat Hanh writes that accepting the Eucharist is a practice of mindfulness. To me Centering Prayer is an embodied rather than an intellectual spiritual practice.
Thomas Keating uses the phrase “The Divine Therapy” to portray Centering Prayer as a method developed to create a dialogue between contemporary psychological models and the classic language of the Christian spiritual path. Keating interweaves the traditions of Thomas of Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross with contemporary insights from Ken Wilber, Michael Washburn, Jean Piaget, as well as the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. This creates a comprehensive psycho-spiritual prototype that begins in woundedness and ends, if the person is willing to take it that far, in transforming union.
Two twenty minutes “sits” are suggested daily and practiced in silence since, “Silence is a great friend of the soul; it unveils the riches of solitude”.
Finding the witness is an elemental aspect in most meditative practice, including Centering Prayer. One principle is to learn to hold everything – attractive and non-attractive alike – together in one accepting gaze. That one gaze may be called the witness. It is the one who is not me yet is a part of me.
When I think I understand the nature of Divine I am in trouble. Being regularly re-minded by a life that nurtures thoughtful witnessing prompts me to remember, “there is no concept of God that can contain God”
Summarizing an article by Richard Rohr who uses a three-part scheme to generally illustrate how we are listening and responding at any given moment.
Listening from the Little Ego Self
This is the conditioned, coping personality dimension of out nature, our “little” self. It is a gift from God that allows us to enjoy and function in the world. However, when we identify with this dimension of self as our ultimate identity we can become dominated by its often fearful, over-securing, controlling drives and attachments.
Listening from the Thinking Mind
The mind draws the words we hear and speak through the filter of its learned concepts, categories, images, and values. Our rational and imaginative mind is a great gift from God, including its capacity to recognize and resist our ego’s way of skewing reality. However, if the thinking mind is the ultimate platform from which we listen and respond, and if we believe its insights bring us fully into the truth, then we have overstepped its capacity.
We are in danger of confusing its views with ultimate reality itself. Our concepts then become idols that shrink the great mystery of divine reality to what these concepts can contain, rather than being valuable symbols that point to deep reality beyond the capacity of words and images to fully grasp.
Listening from the Contemplative Heart
When we most deeply listen and respond from a third place in us, pure spiritual heart, then we more easily avoid the pitfalls of rational idolatry and ego drives, while at the same time respecting the gifted place of rational-imaginative thought and ego functioning in our lives. Our gifted contemplative heart includes our capacity not only to will and intimately feel, but also to “know” deep reality more holistically, intuitively, and directly than our categorizing, thinking minds. In our heart we are immediately present to what is, just as it is, in the receptive space before our thinking begins labeling, interpreting, and judging things, and before our egoic fears and grasping become operational.
Contemplation is a spiritual practice that has the potential to hear, instruct, and connect us to the source of our being. Thomas Keating describes the shift in reality structures that may occur during contemplative prayer in this way: “our private, self-made worlds come to an end; a new world appears within and around us and the impossible becomes an everyday experience.”
Although the mystics spoke of seeking union with God, I suspect union with God comes by grace, often when we least expect it. Another way to see this is “We attend to God simply to attend to God.” We do not do this as a way to find peace, ecstasy, to become holy, or to reach union. We pray simply to pray.
Welcoming Prayer – Used in times of distress
The three qualities of Welcoming Prayer.
Focus and Sink In
Focus and sink in means to feel an upset as sensation in your body. Become very present to it. Whatever the emotion is, notice it in your body and don’t try to change anything but just stay present. This is not an opportunity to psychoanalyze, justify or discover why you feel that way. A potential pitfall here is dissociation or spiritual bypass. That would be “I’m too spiritual to feel angry, resentful, and so on”. By keeping firmly grounded in the physical sensation the Welcoming Prayer ensures that this mistake is not made.
The next element is to welcome the feeling. You can say “welcome anger” or “welcome fear”. This paradoxical approach can create an atmosphere of inner hospitality, i.e. changing one’s relationship to the feeling rather than trying to change the feeling. By welcoming this feeling, you are disarming it and embracing the very thing you once shunned. Gerald May reminds us that this moment can always be endured. It is vital to remember that one is welcoming the physiological or psychological content of the moment not the actual event itself. An example would be an untimely or sudden death of a family member. The ensuing onslaught of feelings may be extreme and painful yet can be welcomed. This however, does not place a value on, nor condone any situation. The idea here is to create space for “the witness”. And as in all matters of the heart, we claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.
One key to letting go is to not rush it. This letting go process may well not be the final time you deal with these feelings and as they recede you may notice a physiological shift in your body. As you let go, it may be wise to move, shake, dance or simply take a walk in the woods.
This practice has the potential to free-up tremendous energy that would otherwise be gobbled up in the maelstrom of emotional turmoil.
A theological proposal of surrender based on the Christian concept of “kenosis” (Philippians 2:6) is foundational to the practice. “If one surrenders to the fear of uncertainty, life can become a set of insurance policies”. If I engage with life in that manner it becomes an ever-decreasing spiral trying my best to control all outcomes. That is an energy drain of enormous magnitude.
All forms of contemplation share the similar goal: to help us see through the deceptions of self and world to better get in touch with what Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine” within us. It does not need to be defined by particularity such as meditation, yoga, tai chi or lectio devina but instead by its function; as a way one has of penetrating illusion and touching reality.