Yesterday I attended a workshop at St Dunstan’s Church Liverpool on Centering Prayer, given by an Episcopal Priest, Cynthia Bourgeault. The workshop was called ‘Centering Prayer – from Performance to Gift’. And, for me, the whole day felt like being given a very important gift.
I have been attempting to practice this form of contemplative prayer since reading Cynthia’s book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, some years ago. Yesterday’s workshop was an inspiring encouragement to keep going, with some very practical pointers to help us to do precisely that. Cynthia said she has been practising centering prayer for 40 years and that it has transformed who and how she is in the world. She spoke simply and clearly but with great power and depth. A small, loving, vital, intelligent and erudite woman she is a good advert for the results of a life-long commitment to this ancient Christian wisdom tradition.
She spoke first about the tradition of meditation, of which centering prayer is a part. She called meditation ‘a universal human sacred activity’ and a ‘universal activity of the human spirit’ which can be found in every religion and every philosophical path in some form or other. Though meditation is widely known and practised in the East, many Christians are unaware that there is an ancient tradition of Christian meditation too and the teachings of centering prayer are part of a rediscovery of the riches of this tradition.
All forms of meditation aim to still what is sometimes called the ‘monkey mind’ – the endless inner chatter that humans engage in. Many forms of meditation seek to do this by training the mind to focus on a single point – the breath is perhaps the most common of these, and mindfulness meditation is a secularised form of this. Another form is the repetition of a mantra or repeated word or phrase. In the Christian tradition, the work of John Main and the World Community for Christian Meditation encourages this single point form of meditation.
Cynthia Bourgeault describes centering prayer as rather different. Though it is a form of meditation, it is called prayer, she said, rather than meditation in order to honour the intention of the practice, which is to enter a presence that is characterised by love. And rather than focusing on a single point or word, it is based on the principle of learning to let go of each thought, to release, to consent to just being in the presence of the divine in each moment. It is about intention not attention. God, she said, is IN the silence, in the noise of the inner chatter, in the consent to let it go. Centering prayer is a way into a different way of being, a different way of perceiving reality. Each thought that arises is an opportunity to practice that letting go, that release, that consent to be in the presence of God.
The aim of centering prayer is not a deep state of bliss, or profound quiet. The subjective experience of your prayer time doesn’t really matter. The noisiest and least settled prayer times may actually teach you the most. The aim is simply to practice letting go of thoughts when they arise, gently, with kindness. It is not hard to do, she said, but it is hard to value and it is of immense value. The value of each tiny act of letting go is that it mirrors the self-emptying of God that Christians see in Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection. It is nothing more or less than the way that we learn, thought by thought, day by day, prayer time by prayer time, to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ – which is the calling of every Christian, the key to walking the ‘Jesus path’ as best we can.
And unlike secular meditation methods, like mindfulness as it is widely taught in the West at present, centering prayer is not something you do for yourself. It is not about YOU at all. It is not done in order to ‘de-stress’ – it is not ‘me time’ or about reducing your anxiety levels. It is something you offer on behalf of a suffering world. It is not about acquisition but about generosity of heart. It is about creating a space for love to be a little more present in the world, a little more often, about opening up points of eternity in the every day. It is a gift YOU give to the world.
If you want to make a start, these are the four guidelines of centering prayer. It really is VERY simple.
- Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. (At our workshop, Cynthia said this would ideally be quite a neutral word or short phrase, like ‘Wait’ or ‘Quiet’ or ‘Let be’ or ‘be still’. It doesn’t need to be a ‘holy’ word as such)
- Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
- When you notice yourself thinking, return ever so gently to the sacred word. (You don’t repeat it the whole time, just when you notice a thought)
- At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.