This post will feature another ancient way of seeking God, one that is both subversive to modern culture and counterintuitive to our inner life. We assume that we always need to come to God with our words and thoughts. Scripture certainly urges us to pray this way. But sometimes good friends can be together without talking. They can enjoy each other's presence in the silence. This is the basic idea behind this form of prayer, called centering prayer.
It can be traced back to the early desert fathers, some 1700 years ago. Using no words, it instead focuses on learning to just be with God, to waste time with Him. As such, it feels like a new type of surrender, not just of our wills and hearts, but also of our words. We empty ourselves before Him, learning to be still in the silence.
The biggest obstacle to centering prayer is our wandering minds. Our brains are networks of connected neurons, where one thought leads to another, and before long you are off in a different place. When the mind is asked to stop this type of thinking, it is like an unruly child who throws a fit because you have taken away its toys. So you give it one toy to play with, one word that pulls you back into God’s presence. What that word is, you have to choose. Sometimes the word will shift and change before you finally land on one that feels right.
To deal with wandering thoughts, centering prayer is generally presented in terms of 4 R’s:
- Retain no thought: don’t hold on to thoughts — just keep letting them go.
- Resist no thought: on the flip side, do not try to push down thoughts as they come.
- React to no thought: this is especially true for emotionally laden ones — continue the process of letting them go.
- Return to the your chosen word: at first, you will need to go back very often, but with time that need grows less.
Here is another helpful illustration. Think of your thoughts as things floating down a river. Your job is to get up on the bank and let the thoughts float by. In the process of doing this, you will come to experience that your deep soul is something different from your shifting thoughts. This is the true you, the self that is longing to unite to Christ. Centering prayer is a way of helping you toward that union.
The experience of centering prayer for me has been profound. My life has been built on a deeply cemented foundation that I have to figure out things on my own. My prayers to God were sincere, but when I left the prayer time, that foundation was still there, seemingly unmovable. Only in centering prayer has this foundation begun to crumble. It’s being replaced with a new one of being with God, knowing that He is with me, for me, and loves me. I am not on my own. I don’t just know that anymore. I feel it. Only in the silence of centering prayer has this happened.
For those interested in trying it, start with 5 minutes, increasing as desired, with 20 minutes as a max. What can happen to you in centering prayer? For each person, the answer will be different, for the Lord will come to each of us differently. That's part of the adventure of being with Him.
For the next post in this series, I will describe another ancient way of seeking God using our daily life experiences.