Centering Prayer and My Faith Journey:
Listening for the Voice that Calls Without Words
“Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Growing up in the Episcopal Church, I wanted nothing more than to live by Jesus’ commandment. But how? How could I become such a loving person? By sitting there in the pew, listening to sermons? By reading the Bible, filled with Jesus’ paradoxical teachings, so hard to fathom, much less put into action? Jesus seemed to ask me to do something I didn’t know how to do. Christian dogma often sounded judgmental and exclusionary, and the tragic history of the church suggested that Christianity might lead away from love rather than toward it.
I wondered if I was really a Christian. Was Christianity too confusing and flawed to lead me into a loving way of being? Were there any real Christians out there besides impossibly self-sacrificing figures like St. Francis or Mother Teresa? So many people have been damaged by Christianity that I wondered if merely calling myself a Christian might be more hurtful than loving.
I tried meditating with the Buddhists. Sitting on cushions, we followed our breath and let go of thoughts. It was a relief to find a place where I could aspire to be a good person while taking a vacation from language about sin and salvation. We were taught to accept ourselves without sorting our qualities into good or bad. This non-judgmental attitude allowed thoughts and emotions that I had concealed from myself to cautiously emerge. I realized that I was sometimes not a very nice person. Yet as I faced up to my flaws, it became easier to do something about them. As I learned to live with my own “bad” parts, I discovered that it was not just the good in me that enabled me to love others. My failings helped me become more compassionate toward other imperfect human beings in new ways that sometimes startled me.
Christianity had always appeared to demand that I become someone who was only half of myself, the good without the bad. In silent meditation I seemed to find a piece that was missing from Christianity. I wondered if I was really a Buddhist and if it might be simpler to let go of God. Yet the meditation revealed an almost tactile quality to reality, a felt sense of what the Buddhists called “basic goodness,” but which to me still felt like God. The more I sat on my cushion, the more I felt that sacred presence.
Jesus was not strong on teaching the “how” of Christianity. He left a few brief instructions for prayer, but no detailed manual. Over the centuries Christian monastics have used Jesus’ teachings as the foundation for contemplative prayer practices that were never central to mainstream Christianity, but which in the mid-20th century became more widely known through the writings of Thomas Merton. In the 1970s a group of Trappist monks – Thomas Keating, William Meninger, and Basil Pennington – set out to recover and make Christian contemplative prayer practices more widely available. Inspired in particular by the fourteenth century spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing, they developed the simple method of Centering Prayer and began working to popularize it.
Most people are surprised to learn that Christianity has its own form of silent meditation. Centering Prayer feels almost like a secret, and Christians who have turned to other traditions for silent meditation are sometimes a bit indignant to discover that such a helpful and spiritually nourishing practice has not been made more readily available. Like the twelve-step movement — another movement with an emphasis on the “how-to” aspects of spirituality, Centering Prayer is often hidden away in church basements. In this silent practice I found a contemplative home that combined the teachings of my birth faith with the genuine transformation I longed for.
The method of Centering Prayer is extremely simple. Choose a sacred word as a symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. Sit comfortably, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word. When engaged with your thoughts, return gently to the sacred word. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. A sacred breath may be used instead of a sacred word as the symbol of your intention, but the breath is gently noticed rather than followed with concentration. Two 20-minute periods a day are recommended.
Jesus asks his followers to preach the kingdom of God. Many people assume this means speaking in religious language or trying to convert others. To me, preaching the kingdom of God means trying to help people experience God in their own lives. I have found that God’s presence can often best be evoked with a minimum of God language, or sometimes no language at all. By teaching Centering Prayer I offer the gift of God’s silence, which speaks directly to the heart.
On my own journey I have sometimes needed to give myself permission to let go of aspects of my faith in order to discover what I really believe. Questions, doubts and struggles are roads that lead deeper. At one point I found it helpful to describe myself as a Christian with a Buddhist practice. Today when I teach Centering Prayer, I try to welcome everyone, Buddhists attracted to Jesus’ teaching, atheists tormented by the presence of God, Christians who dislike Christianity, as well as those who find Christian faith and worship deeply satisfying. Together we listen in the silence for a voice that calls us without words.
~ from the newsletter of the Copper Beech Institute in West Hartford CT, where I led a retreat called “Centering Prayer for Seekers” on the weekend of December 12 – 14, 2014.