Clouds can symbolize the stillness and restoration that are possible with a practice of centering prayer or meditation. Image (c) color line via Flickr / Creative Commons.
If you’re a Christian or former or lapsed Christian, have you ever wondered what you’re supposed to actually be doing while praying? Or perhaps you lost touch with the church after enduring life’s ups and downs, not quite sure how the stories and practices of your church could be applied to struggling with every day life? Have you ever wondered about the mystery of feeling alive and attuned to yourself and the world, and why it seems that Christianity has so little to say about this?
This was my experience in my twenties, as I became increasingly skeptical about how relevant the practices I had learned in church — prayer generally comprised of asking for favors and protection from God, and stories and songs that felt they were created for people four or five generations before now — were to my adult life. I stopped attending church service and only visited churches for weddings, musical performances, and funerals.
I’m touching on a number of themes, but the primary one I wanted to discuss here was the loss of practices and rituals that can help Christians cultivate a felt sense of aliveness with themselves, with a sense of the Holy Spirit within, and thus ultimately, with other Christians and non-Christians as they work to live by following the example of Jesus.
The good news is there actually is a practice within Christianity that can help you cultivate the feeling and awareness of the Lord in your daily life, and that can complement reading of scripture, attending church, and so on. It’s called centering prayer.
Over the past winter holidays, I read Father Thomas Keating’s book, “Open Mind, Open Heart” at the suggestion of Professor Mark Muesse when, in a forthcoming interview, I asked him what he suggested Christians could explore if they were curious about meditation. Father Keating is an American Trappist monk and priest (Wikipedia bio). The book is a practical introduction to centering prayer: what it is, how to do it, guidance for overcoming challenges, encouragement for keeping at it, and suggestions for deepening your practice.
On important caveat, since many Christians have either left to church to find more meaning from so-called “Eastern” meditation and spiritual practices, or have remained Christians and integrated these other practices into their Christianity: many meditation practices, especially mindfulness meditation originating from Buddhism, do not require disavowing any beliefs or adopting new beliefs. As such they can be practiced within the structure of most Christian denominations. That possibility, however, does not mean it sits well with many Christians. What follows is an overview of a practice that has existed in Christianity for centuries and only in the last three or four centuries has gone underground as more purely mental or thought-based forms of prayer have dominated the mainstream instructions for prayer.
What is centering prayer?
Centering prayer is essentially a meditation practice for Christians. It is part of a larger body of practice termed contemplative prayer. The only preparation involved is to think of a one or two-syllable “sacred word” that you will use once you start your prayer. Keating suggests a few that might work for you, such as “God,” “Jesus,” or “amen.” Then, you will need a quiet place where you can sit comfortably along for twenty minutes.
The prayer begins by sitting still and welcoming the Holy Spirit into your awareness (that is to say, feeling the Holy Spirit that is already within you). If you get caught up in distracting thoughts – as you inevitably will, and this is normal – you simply say the sacred word silently in your mind to help you return to the present moment.
Keating explains the essence of centering prayer and how it differs implicitly from thought-based prayer:
“Centering prayer is not so much the absence of thoughts as detachment from them. It is the opening of mind and heart, body and emotions – our whole being – to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts, and emotions … We do not deny or repress what is in our consciousness. We simply accept the fact of whatever is there and go beyond it, not by effort, but by letting go…” (p. 12)
In this sense, centering prayer is very similar to Buddhist mindfulness meditation, and again in our forthcoming interview, Prof. Mark Muesse (an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College) affirms that, in his opinion, there are no practical differences between centering prayer and mindfulness meditation. These observations speak to the idea that all religions and spiritual practices really are pointing to the same place; they may just go about trying to get there a little differently.
Why do centering prayer?
Centering prayer, as popularized by modern teachers like Father Keating, aims to bring the spiritual – or the felt, intuitive, and practical daily experiences of aliveness, alertness, and attunement to one’s self and others – back into mainstream Christian practice. He writes:
“Until spiritual leadership becomes a reality in Christian circles, many will continue to look to other religious traditions for the spiritual experiences they are not finding in their local churches or other Christian institutions. If there were a widespread renewal of the practice of the contemplative dimension of the Gospel which bonds Christians together at a deeper level, the reunion of the Christian churches would be a real possibility, dialogue with the other world religions would have a firm basis in the spiritual experience of the Christian community, and the religions of the world would bear a much clearer witness to the human values they hold in common.” (p. 8)
In short, Keating believes this practice is fundamental not only to awakening God and living through the Holy Spirit in your individual life, but that it is the key to uniting Christians and non-Christians by focusing more on their common humanity than on the differences of doctrine and belief. This is one of the fundamental problems of our modern, globalizing time.
In “Open Mind, Open Heart”, Keating offers suggestions for other elements of life that are critical to sustaining one’s path on deepening in centering prayer – having a dedication practice with God (i.e., the rituals of going to Church) and helping others through regular community service. Keating states these are required to help ground a practitioner in the true practice of living with God in one’s life, and also helps stabilize a person as they go through the initial stages of deepening their awareness and connection with God through centering prayer, which can lead to the discharge of a lot of surprising and uncomfortable thoughts. This again is similar to what it can feel like in the early stages of meditation, when our experience of life confronts the many superficial motives and actions we have taken in the past or desired for our future.
Keating argues that the practice of centering prayer, if followed diligently and for a long time, can lead one to deeper states of consciousness and attunement with oneself and God. He writes, “For those who have attained this consciousness, daily life is a continual revelation of God. The words they hear in scripture and in the liturgy confirm what they have learned through the prayer that is contemplation.” (p. 17)
Where can I learn more?
I’d suggest reading Father Keating’s book as a great starting point. It ends each section with a Q&A format that can help readers deepen their understanding of the practices and concepts he introduces.
For those of you curious about the historical and/or theological origins of centering prayer, according to Father Keating:
“Centering prayer is based on the wisdom saying of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:
‘…But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:6) “ (p. 176-177)
Here are other writers cited by Father Keating as inspirations for modern centering prayer (the specific suggestions are my own), and many of the below selections offer their own advice on the interior life:
- Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”
- Author unknown, “The Cloud of Unknowing…”
- John of the Cross, “Dark Night of the Soul”
- Teresa of Avila, “The Way of Perfection”
- Francis de Sales, “Introduction to the Devout Life”
- Therese of Lisieux, “The Story of a Soul…”
Editor’s note: Sorry for the silence since our last article in December, but we prioritized resting and being with family over the winter holidays. Because our main writer and editor (Andrew) struggles to juggle family, various work and writing projects, and just getting a good night’s sleep, we’ve decided to cut back on our publishing frequency for the near term. Please look for a thoughtful article every 2-4 weeks going forward, and thank you for your continued support.