|By entering into the contemplative dimension of prayer, a Christian approaches the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit by stillness and receptivity.|
Shaun McCarty is a Missionary Servant of the Most Holy Trinity who teaches in the Department of Pastoral Studies, Washington Theological Union. He is also an associate staff member, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Washington, D.C.
BEFORE me is a cartoon depicting two Eastern monks, robed and unshod, sitting side by side in position for prayer. The younger, apparently a novice at this, bears a look bordering bewilderment and frustration. His older mentor is saying, “Nothing comes next. This is it.”
The cartoon puts me in mind of my own younger novice days at prayer. Early on, a spiritual mentor had urged me to the practice of the presence of God. That meant a steady effort over time to become more aware of Gods’ presence in my life, largely by thinking and imaging. It also called for a weekly discursive meditation on my own progress in this practice.
I have since learned that this ancient practice has it foundation in the omnipresence of God as expressed in St. Paul’s words to the Athenians, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Although long present in the Christian tradition, the practice is perhaps nowhere so clearly described as in the writings of St. Francis de Sales. He elaborates four ways of placing oneself in God’s presence as a preparation for prayer:
The first consists of a lively, attentive realization of God’s absolute presence, that is, that God is in all things and in all places.
The second … is to remember that he is present in a most particular manner in you heart and in the center of your spirit (italics mine).
A third… is to consider how our Savior in his humanity gazes down from heaven on all. .. who as his children, and most especially those who are at prayer, whose actions and conduct he observes…
A fourth… consists in the use of simple imagination when we represent to ourselves the Savior in his sacred humanity as if he were near us just as… a friend ….(l)
Another profoundly simple classic in the tradition is The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.(2) This eighteenth-century work is comprised of the conversations and letters of an unlettered Carmelite lay brother who felt the constant companionship of God in the commonplace of his kitchen.
Despite the introduction by my mentor to such a hallowed tradition and to the privileged company of people like Francis and Lawrence, my recollection is that not much ‘happened next’ in my practice of the presence of God save bewilderment and frustration! In retrospect, the trouble was I tried to hard! At best, my mind would wrap itself around what approached a rather philosophical notion of God’s omnipresence or my imagination would conjure up an image of Christ resembling a holy picture or statue I’d somewhere seen. At worst, I would engage in near-compulsive attempts to remain in the presence of God during the day by the desperate repetition of short ejaculatory prayers. Not surprisingly, the practice waned and I drifted in less demanding directions.
Now, in my later novice efforts at prayer, another spiritual mentor has nudged me once again towards the practice of the presence of God. This time the approach is somewhat different. It is called ‘Centering Prayer; a practice deeply rooted in the tradition of Western contemplative prayer. This is a prayer of quiet and presence more than of words and activity. Heeding the words of the psalmist, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10), I now let myself enter into the mystery of God already present at the center (and at the circumference) of my being more on God’s terms than according to my own concepts, words, and images. In some ways, this kind of prayer resembles that of the monks in the cartoon. As a matter of fact, it also resembles what I see some athletes do when they pause to gain (or regain) concentration during a match. Or, again, it resembles what many busy people practice for the relief of stress — Transcendental Meditation. But the resemblance to all of these is superficial. There are profound differences.
What follows will be an attempt to answer the questions: ‘How is centering prayer different in the Christian tradition?’ and ‘How does it make a difference?’ In terms of the cartoon, is it entirely true that ‘Nothing happens next. This is it.’? My basic contention will be that Centering Prayer is Christian to the extent that it is Trinitarian. It can lay claim to that by what ‘happens’ after and especially by what ‘happens’ before the time of prayer.
CENTERING AND MERTON
Centering Prayer is inextricably bound up with our Western tradition of contemplative prayer understood as seeking union with God by resting lovingly in God’s presence and ending in transformation of life. Until the sixteenth century, our tradition was that contemplation was the normal evolution of a genuine spiritual life. Because of the emergence of extremes like Quietism and Jansenism, contemplation became suspect and somewhat displaced by norms of discursive meditation for ordinary folk according to approved methods and forms of private devotions. The more contemplative states of prayer were seemingly reserved for a spiritual ‘elite.’
In recent years, there has been a ‘democratizing’ (or ‘catholicizing’ might be better!) of sorts in reference to contemplative prayer for ‘ordinary people.’ A challenge for this has certainly come from the popularizing of Eastern forms of prayer among those in quest of deeper interiority, sometimes to the trivializing of genuine contemplation. Yet more serious efforts have been bolstered by modern studies of masters of the spiritual life like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and the anonymous fourteenth-century English author of The Cloud of Unknowing which presents a simple method of entering into quiet, contemplative prayer. This, as well as other writings of the time, were meant to support a tradition of prayer that was best handed on orally.
The term ‘Centering Prayer’ has been attributed to Thomas Merton, who taught that we come to know God at the deep center of our true selves. It is a pattern woven throughout his writings. In The New Man, for example, he says:
Grace is given us for the precise purpose of enabling us to discover and actualize our deepest and truest self. Unless we discover this deep self, which is hidden with Christ in God, we will never really know ourselves as persons. Nor will we know God. for it is by the door of this deep self that we enter into the spiritual knowledge of God. (3)
At a later date, he wrote:
(In meditation). . .we should let ourselves be brought naked and defenseless into the center of that dread where we stand alone before God in our nothingness, without explanation, without theories, completely dependent upon his providential care, in dire need of the gift of his grace, his mercy and the light of faith.(4)
Though hesitant to speak of his own religious practices, a rare exception appears in a letter to a Muslim friend that is quite revelatory:
Strictly speaking I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love. That is to say that it is centered on faith by which alone we can know the presence of God… it does not mean imagining anything or conceiving a precise image of God, for to my mind that would be a kind of idolatry. On the contrary, it is a matter of adoring Him as invisible and infinitely beyond our comprehension, and realizing Him as all.(5)
However, it is my intention here neither to trace the historical development of centering prayer within the Christian tradition, nor to explore its present practice. Both history and practice have been dealt with adequately elsewhere.(6) I intend simply to suggest some Trinitarian dimensions that might precede and follow Centering Prayer.
WHAT HAPPENS BEFORE
Primarily what distinguishes any kind of prayer is the intentionality one brings to it. I use the term ‘intentionality’ in the sense that Rollo May defines it: “…the structure that gives rise to experience… not the same as intentions, but the dimension which underlies them — our capacity to have intentions …. [Intentionality] is at the heart of consciousness.”(7) For May, there are two sides to intentionality; one subjective, the other objective. The subjective side involves our intentions and decisions as to how we perceive our world. The objective side concerns the object of our desire. Intentionality is present in both subject and object. One can, for example, have different intentionalitites in visiting people that involve both the visitor’s intentions and the visited’s expectations: as salespersons to sell a product; as patron to grant a favor; as minister to provide spiritual help; or simply as friend to ‘be with.’ In each instance, depending upon the intentionality present, the visit and the experience will have different meaning.
DIFFERENT INTENTIONALITIES IN CENTERING
In similar fashion, one can approach entering with differing intentionalities. The possibilities include (1) a search for nothingness or the loss of self; this can range between a mere escape From reality and a quest for Nirvana (I suspect this intentionality is operative in the cartoon, at least for the older monk); (2) a search for deeper union within oneself; this can range from relaxation (for the busy executive) to concentration (for the athlete) to an altered state of consciousness (for the ‘explorer of inner space’); (3) a search for deeper union with the world of nature and/or the world of people; this can range between a humanitarian impulse towards kinship with the world ‘out there’ and a pantheistic gesture of mergence with ‘divine’ matter; (4) a search for a deeper union with transcendent reality; this can range between some vague awareness of a ‘Higher Power’ and the differentiated consciousness of a Triune God.
Therefore, a primary question in entering into Centering Prayer (or any kind of prayer for that matter!) is, ‘What is the intentionality?’ On the side of the person praying, what is the fundamental stance she or he brings to prayer (with or without words) that underlies all surface intentions, inclinations and, even resistances? On God’s side, have any expectations been revealed?
I don’t mean to imply that when one’s intentionality in Centering Prayer is clearly Christian that a deeper sense of union within self or with others and the cosmos can’t (or shouldn’t) happen. They often do. Nor does it preclude the possibility of altered states of consciousness. That certainly can happen. But these are only means of side-effects, not the term of Christian intentionality.
INTENTIONALITY IN CHRISTIAN PRAYER
The intentionality of truly Christian prayer is inextricably bound up with baptismal identity, that is, with the relationship the baptized person has with God consequent upon incorporation into Christ. This has implications for all prayer. Such Christian intentionality is epitomized in the closing doxology of the Roman canons prayed at the Eucharistic Liturgy:
In the unity of the Holy Spirit,
All glory and honor is yours,
Forever and ever. Amen.
In acclaiming the celebrating the glory of God, the doxology speaks not just of the reality of a ‘Three Person’d God’ to whom the Christian prays, but also of the way he or she is prompted to pray within the Christian economy — to God, through Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Rooted in biblical reflection by a community of believers, does not this liturgical formulation reveal something of expectation on God’s side of Christian intentionality? The dynamism of our relating to God is the reverse of God relating to us. The doxology speaks of the relationship of the Holy Spirit to each of us and to all of us. In union with the Holy Spirit, each is empowered to confess Jesus as Lord (I Cor 13:3) and to call God ‘Abba’ (Rom 8:15). Moreover the ‘unity of the Holy Spirit’ is another way of saying ‘holy Church.”(8) The Church is brought to unity and communion in the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, the mediation of Christ signified by ‘through him’ is further clarified by ‘with him’ and ‘in him.’ We are ‘with him.’ Neither he nor we stand before the Father alone in praise. He and we (as adopted children and co-heirs) are together in praise. We are ‘in him.’ We are “…taken up into the living union of his Body and therefore drawn into the fervent glow of his prayer.”(9)
Thus the Trinitarian intentionality of Christian prayer shapes and directs it as an expression of praise and desire for perfect union with God through Christ. This union is nothing less than a sharing in the life of the Most Holy Trinity. It is, as it were, an ‘immersion’ in the mystery of the Triune God. Following the imagery of St. John of the Cross, the Holy Spirit, as the ‘mutual breath of Father and Son’ becomes the ‘mutual breath’ of God and the one praying. As baptized into Christ, the Christian lives with his life and, together with Christ, approaches God as Father/Mother.
Centering Prayer would seem a most appropriate expression of such Trinitarian intentionality. It is elegant silent testimony to the claim of St. Paul, “I am alive; yet it is not longer I, but Christ living in me” (Gal (2:20). It also is a way of taking seriously St. Paul’s comforting assurance, “The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness, for, when we Rio not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words; and he who can see into all hearts knows what the Spirit means because the prayers that the Spirit makes for God’s holy people are always in accordance with the mind of God” (Rom 8:26-27).
NOURISHING TRINITARIAN INTENTIONALITY
What has been said so far suggests a relationship between Christian Centering Prayer and other ways in which baptismal identity finds nourishment. Nowhere is Trinitarian intentionality better expressed and shaped than in liturgical worship. We cannot appreciate the Christian perspective of contemplative prayer apart from its relationship to all of life and the liturgy in particular. Again, we take our cue from Thomas Merton:
It would.. .be a serious error to ignore the true meaning of inner meditative prayer and its crucial importance for the whole Christian life, especially for the full understanding of the liturgy. In any case, we are not speaking here of the prayer of the heart as an isolated, particular exercise, as a separate department of the devout life. The prayer of the heart must penetrate every aspect and every activity of Christian existence. It must flourish above all in the very heart of all liturgy.(10)
The liturgy, in turn, to be truly expressive and genuinely formative, presupposes a communion of believers. The experience of communion, then, is crucial to Trinitarian intentionality. Bishop Christopher Mwoleka, dubbed the’Ujamma’ (Swahili for ‘familyhood’) Bishop of the Rulenge Diocese in Tanzania, East Africa, thinks our approach to the Trinity should proceed from the experience of our shared life together. For him, the Trinity is about reality — what we are as the image and likeness of God, a God who is communion. He says in a decidedly African accent:
I am dedicated to the ideal of ujamma because it invites all …in a down-to-earth, practical way, to imitate the life of the Trinity, which is a life of sharing. The three divine persons share everything in such a way that they are not three gods but only one. And Christ’s wish is: ‘That they (his followers) be one as we are one. With me in them and you in me. May they be completely one…’(11)
Bishop Mwoleka thinks that if we are not sharing life together at some depth, we cannot have an adequate grasp of the Trinity. I would suggest therefore that the intentionality of all Christian prayer (including Centering Prayer) is Trinitarian and, as such, is more appropriately solidary than solitary.
In uncovering intentionality, one might ask: What brings me to Centering Prayer? A quest for private religious experience? A substitute for unsatisfying liturgical/communal prayer? To evade some aspect of my life for which dialogic confrontation with the Lord (or with another person) might be more appropriate? Or is my deepest desire union with God in communion with other?
WHAT ‘HAPPENS’ NEXT?
As with all authentic prayer, the expected outcome is growth in love — love of God and love of others. It should make a difference! The author of The Cloud of Unknowing repeatedly says that love is the essence of the whole effort: “Indeed, the very heart of this work is nothing else but a naked intent toward God for His own sake” (Chapter 24). This ‘ecstatic’ intentionality is the opposite of self-absorbing introspection.
Along with growth in love, one might also expect an outpouring of charity’s companion gift, wisdom. William Johnston says:
the blind stirring of love eventually develops into a bright flame, guiding …every choice…. Moreover it is precisely this love that gives wisdom …. Progress in charity, then, means progress in wisdom. This kind of wisdom is …apparent in human relations where love can discover beauty and potentiality that reason alone cannot find.(12)
In addition to greater charity and deeper wisdom, one might also expect a maturing of the fruits of the Holy Spirit to become evident in one’s life — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). This maturing, in turn, leads to deeper and wider compassion. Basil Pennington speculates as to how this happens:
What happens — the way the Holy spirit seems to bring this about — is that in this prayer we experience not only our oneness with God in Christ, but also our oneness with all the rest of the Body of Christ, and indeed with the whole of creation, in God’s creative love and sharing in being. Thus we begin, connaturally as it were, to experience the presence of God in all things, the presence of Christ in each person we meet. Moreover, we sense a oneness with them. From this flows a true compassion — a ‘feeling with.’(13)
To the extent that Centering Prayer is offered through, with, and in Christ, his attitudes and beatitudes become more one’s own. One might expect a greater attitude of surrender to the will of God and more evident living of those values of the kingdom incarnated in Jesus and taught to his followers as the pattern of Christian discipleship that we call beatitudes.
Although it is prayer in its own right and not just a means to disposing for prayer, Centering Prayer can also provide a remarkable readiness for experiencing the presence of God in other forms of prayer including biblical reflection, liturgical celebration, communal prayer, and the practice of ministry. One might expect a ‘ripple’ effect even outside times for prayer. The quiet, peace, and willingness that make up Centering Prayer begin to ‘ripple’ through the rest of life and its daily activities. That ‘ripple effect’ issues in ever-widening circles, spreading its peace to the world itself. The American bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace testifies:
The practice of contemplative prayer is especially valuable for advancing harmony and peace in the world. For this prayer rises, by divine grace, where these is total disarmament of the heart and unfolds in an experience of love which is the moving force of peace. Contemplation fosters a vision of the human family as united and interdependent in the mystery of God’s love for all people. This silent, interior prayer bridges temporarily the “already” and the “not yet,” this world and God’s kingdom of peace.(14)
I have attempted to show that Christian Centering Prayer is different and that it should make a difference. It is different primarily because of a Trinitarian intentionality that should precede it; it makes a difference in the union and communion that should follow it. As for the actual time of prayer, what ‘happens’ is implied in the adjective ‘centering.’ It is a term potters use for that act that precedes all others on the potter’s wheel. It is the act of bringing the clay into a spinning, unwobbling pivot. This frees the clay to take innumerable shapes as potter and clay press against each other. The potter touches the clay at only one point, yet as the pot turns in the potter’s hands, the whole vessel is affected. There is an experience of wholeness. So, in reference to Centering Prayer, the object is not to ‘wobble’! Just to be still. Let the Potter do the work.
It is my conviction that, over time, ‘willing’ fidelity to (rather than ‘willful’ effort at) the discipline of spending unambiguous time at the Potter’s wheel is itself a form of body language declaring where we want our hearts to be. In these later novice efforts at the practice of the presence of God, even as I ‘wobble; Jeremiah’s visit to the potter comforts me:
The word that was addressed to Jeremiah by Yahweh, ‘Get up and make your way down to the potter’s house; there I shall let your hear what I have to say.’ So I went down to the potter’s house; and there he was, working at the wheel. And whenever the vessel he was working on came out wrong, as happens with the clay handled by potters, he would start afresh and work it into another vessel, as potters do. Then this word of Yahweh was addressed to me, ‘House of Israel, cannot I do to you what this potter does? — it is Yahweh who speaks. Yes, as the clay in the potter’s hands, so you are in mine… (Jer 18:1-6).
- St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, trans., J.K. Ryan (Garden City, NY: Image, 1972), pp. 84 ff.
- Old Tappan, NJ: Spire, 1976.
- Thomas Merton, The New Man (New York: Mentor-Omega, 1961), p. 32.
- Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), p. 85.
- Quoted in Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), p. 433. (Merton to Aziz Vh. Snfi; January 2, 1966.)
- For example, Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart (Amity, NY: Amity House, 1986); Basil Pennington, Daily We Touch Him (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.,1988); Centering Prayer (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1980), Finding Grace at the Center (Still River, MA: St. Bede Publications, 1978). (This contains four essays by Pennington, Keating, and T. Clarke which, together form an excellent primer on Centering Prayer.) Cf. also W. Johnston, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1973). (These two works are classic sources for Centering Prayer. In the introduction, Johnston amply illustrates how the works are eminently Christian.)
- Rollo May, Love and Will (New York: Dell, 1974), pp. 221 ff.
- Joseph Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (New York: Benziger, 1955), pp. 265 ff.
- Ibid., p. 266.
- Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p. 136.
- Aylward Shorter, ed., African Christian Spirituality (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1980), p. 122.
- The Cloud of Unknowing, p. 20.
- Finding Grace at the Center, p. 20.
- National Council Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, May 3, 1983, (Washington, DC: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1983, #294), p. 90.