“Thinking, which is the radical gift of rational consciousness, is of its nature controlling and inventing. It is limited in its capacities and bound by five senses and the thinking process. Putting this managing and controlling mind into the heart is a basic practice to awaken the divine presence within us.” – Thomas Keating, Contemplative Outreach Ltd. News, Dec.2014
What is Centering Prayer. Part 1
Centering Prayer is a modern term for a very ancient prayer. It could be called Prayer in Secret (Mt.6, 6). This teaching of Jesus on prayer has roots in the Old Testament. Elijah’s experience of Yahweh on Mount Horeb is said to be the “sound of sheer silence”, (I Kings 19, 12, the New Revised Standard Version). Then there is the famous phrase from Psalm 46, “be still and know I am God”
In centuries past ways of cultivating contemplative prayer have been called Prayer of the Heart, Pure Prayer, Prayer of Faith, Prayer of Simple Regard, Prayer of Simplicity, Active Quiet and Acquired Contemplation. This form of prayer was practiced by the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, people like Evagrius and John Cassian to name but two. In the Middle Ages we have well-known names such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Guido the Carthusian, the Rhineland mystics such as St Hildegard, Meister Eckhart and Ruysbroek. In later times there is the English mystic of the 14th Century and author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” to which the method of Centering Prayer owes much. After the Reformation we have the mystics like St. Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross in Spain and St Francis de Sales and St. Jane De Chantel in France. Nearer to our own times we have the Benedictines, Dom Augustine Baker and Dom John Chapman and of course in the 20th Century the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.
It is nothing new to rename an ancient practice to make it more appealing to a modern audience. Centering Prayer is an another attempt to present the teaching of earlier times in a modern way to make it suitable for ordinary people who wish to deepen their life of prayer and to have a support system to sustain it. It is a way of prayer which moves away from the ordinary psychological awareness to the interior silence of the spiritual level of our being and beyond. It can in time move in to the secrecy of union with the Ultimate Mystery within us.
Centering Prayer is a method for refining our faculties so that we can enter more easily into this interior silence which is contemplative prayer. Contemplative Prayer is both a gift and a mystery. It takes us to the very threshold so to speak where the door is always open. It does this by withdrawing our attention from the ordinary flow of thoughts, with which we tend to identify with most of the time. (Open Mind, Open Heart. p34). Practicing Centering Prayer opens us to the spiritual level of our deepest being. It is also a way of letting go of our own agendas, preconceptions, misconceptions, prejudices, ideas, opinions and beliefs, so that we can become a channel for God’s grace. It is a practice to facilitate our desire to be totally open to God, the Ultimate Reality.
The method of Centering Prayer owes much to a classic book on prayer called “The Cloud of Unknowing”, written in the 14th century by an anonymous English writer, who is said to have come from the Midlands of England and be either a monk or priest. To find the method of Centering Prayer within “The Cloud of Unknowing” you do have to read the whole book for it is spread out within the book and not in an orderly fashion. However, it is an exercise well worth doing. Centering Prayer does not come out of a vacuum but it has put the method suggested by the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” into a clear and ordered fashion. Centering Prayer is a way of prayer which follows most closely the method found in the “The Cloud of Unknowing” than any other method. Centering Prayer is totally Christian.
All Christian prayer is based on the Word of God in Scripture, and the person of Jesus Christ. Prayer is more than a shopping list we present to God. It is more a communion with God, a way to cultivate a relationship with God. Prayer is a relationship with God and this relationship can be expressed without words or thoughts, or feelings, by a simple silent intention to consent to God’s presence and action. The most traditional way of developing this relationship with God is Lectio Divina, the prayerful pondering on the Word of God in Scripture. It is important to situate Centering Prayer in the monastic tradition of Lectio Divina.
Lectio Divina was a natural way of prayer for everyone for the first twelve centuries. It consisted firstly in the prayerful listening to or reading of Scripture. This could be done in various ways, including gazing at stained glass windows which told the Scriptural story. In this way prayer was not confined to those few who could read. Naturally this led on to thinking about the words heard or read, then responding spontaneously with acts of sorry, hope, love and faith and finally resting in the Word, simply being in the silence.
Guigo the Carthusian in the 12th Century named the four moments or stages of Lectio Divina. The first part he called Lectio (reading/listening), then came Meditation (discursive meditation or reflecting) which lead into Oratio (responding) and the final stage Contemplation (contemplation/resting). The first three stages were the active preparation for contemplation and might all take place in the same period of prayer. These stages are interwoven. Contemplative Prayer is not a practice to make the mind a blank but to move beyond thoughts and the multiplication of various acts to the level of communing with God within, without words, thoughts or feelings. Lectio Divina is a very rich way of prayer which takes us from the early stages of prayer to the deeper stages required for a mature Christian life.
The last moment or stage of Lectio Divina was cut off from most people for historical reasons which are beyond the scope of this article. Centering Prayer was a way to help those who pray move from the third moment, oratio, to the fourth moment, contemplation. Centering Prayer is simply offered to those who feel called to a deeper way of prayer and who are looking for a way that will help them in the context of very active lives in the world. Centering Prayer did not come out of a vacuum and was always meant to be an aid in the development of a mature Christian prayer based on the Scriptures and the person of Jesus Christ.
It should also be noticed that in this tradition of Lectio Divina, meditation refers to discursive meditation, a reflecting or thinking on the words of Scripture. The term meditation is now loosely used and has even been inter changed with the term contemplation. This is causing much confusion in some people.
Meditation has many forms and a variety of uses. The popular idea is that it is a way to relax, to relieve the stress of everyday life. This is not prayer. However, unconsciously this seems to be the idea of many who approach Centering Prayer. It is partly due to the popular idea of “meditation” which conditions many people in to having preconceived ideas on this subject.
Centering Prayer does not replace or exclude any other form of prayer but it is a specific method and it is not the same as or interchangeable with any other modern method of prayer. This is not to say there is anything wrong with any other method. I simply want to stress that Centering Prayer is different. Each person must find the way of prayer that suits them. We pray as we can, not as we would wish. It is important to find a way that will help us do that. Each method has its own dynamic and this needs to be respected. Centering Prayer has its own dynamic which has to be understood and followed for its fruits to be fully realised and experienced. Centering Prayer is not a way of escaping from the realities of the world but rather becoming aware with greater empathy and meeting the world with extra ordinary love. It is not selfish navel gazing. If our intention is to consent to God’ presence and action within it becomes a true channel of interior transformation and thus benefits all of creation.
The free Contemplative Outreach app for Centering Prayer is available for iPhones, iPad and Android phones. This app supports one’s daily prayer commitment. Beautiful and peaceful with an adjustable timer, opening and closing prayer options. Brief instructions for learning Centering Prayer are also included.
1. Consenting to God as God is.
This collects the intimate talks and daily presentations given by Thomas Keating to members of “Extension Conteplativa International” – the Spanish and Portuguese branch of Contemplative Outreach – on various aspects of the spiritual journey.
2. Reflections on the Unknowable
This is a distillation of over seventy years as a monastic and more than three decades of writing on Centering Prayer is Thomas Keating’s latest volume on how we might develop our intimacy with God and our experiences on the Christian Contemplative Tradition. The first part of the book is a lengthy interview with Thomas Keating in which he examines concepts of the divine available to individuals willing to open the door to God. The second section consists of 31 brief homilies with a wide range of diverse topics.
“Be still and know that I am God” – Psalm 46:10
The intent of Contemplative Outreach is to foster the process of transformation in Christ in one another though the practice of Centring Prayer.