Sunday, March 20, 2011

Centering Prayer

Yesterday I attended an all-day workshop at Saint Benedict's Monastery's Spirituality Center on centering prayer with Sister Katherine Howard. It is something I've been wanting to do for a while, and because it is Lent, it seemed like a good time to begin this kind of prayer practice.

Centering Prayer is a type of contemplative prayer. It is "apophatic" which means prayer without images. The idea is to simply be in the presence of God, to rest in God's love and experience it, to get beneath the river of ordinary consciousness and allow thoughts and feelings to flow by on the surface while you are deeper, at the center of your being, a place that is occupied by love.

The method is simple. Sit in a chair or on a cushion in a relaxed pose and close your eyes for 20 or 30 minutes. Introduce yourself to the process with a brief prayer-- I have just been affirming my belief that God is present to me and that at my center is God's love, and announcing more or less "here I am" to turn from the cares of the day and be present. The practitioner of centering prayer also takes a word with him/her into the prayer, a word that doesn't necessarily matter in terms of its meaning-- it is not a word to be meditated on or contemplated. The word is "the symbol of our intention to consent to God's loving presence and action within us. The word serves primarily to indicate our consent and at the same time it is a way of letting go 'thoughts' we may have become engaged in."

The word I'm using is "ruah," a Hebrew word for spirit or breath, associated for me with the Creation in Genesis and the breath/spirit of God breathed into humans to animate them. It is the only "object" I have with me behind my eyelids, and I carry it to the back of the space and set it down, turning to gaze inward. As thoughts and feelings and physical sensations come, I let them go. It helps that it is not an English word, or a word I use often. I don't get attached to it.

The point is not to banish thought or have no thoughts-- thoughts are part of being. The point is to detach from them, let them flow at a different level. When I alight on a thought or find myself associating to further thoughts, I turn back to my word, acknowledge it and place it again at the back of the space (it is like a movement in Tai Chi for me right now, like lifting and sweeping, intentionally directing my consciousness), and turn again to the meditation space.

I've often thought this kind of prayer could be good for me, but I've also known it would be challenging. I like insight and thinking and I like words and metaphors. But I also know that I have had exactly two very deep religious prayer experiences, one in high school and one in college. And in both, I entered the prayer completely burdened, overwrought, and with deep longing. And in both-- in very different ways-- the experience that transformed me can only be described as an experience of God's love both in me and perceived in others. In one, an actual deep prayer experience, where an hour seemed only a minute, I was in fact in a cavernous space, a wide and dark space where I actually experienced the sensation of resting in God's love and being actively consoled. The second crept up on me gradually and was unexpected when it arrived-- a joy that lasted for nearly two weeks  -- an answer to months of daily prayer on my knees asking God to help me understand/experience "the joy of the Lord."

My experience, of life and of religion, is often one of stress and burden. I have an over-developed sense of responsibility, and a fear of failure and, worse, being scolded. I don't take criticism very well either! The stakes are always getting raised, although of course it is only I who am doing the raising. And I never detach. I am not even sure I know what that means. I excel and then I crash and take some time off and return, refreshed if not renewed, for another round. I don't think life needs to be experienced that way.

I hope I will have the discipline for this. I know I can only benefit from practicing 20 minutes of letting thoughts glide through my consciousness and letting them go, as I seek to more deeply experience God's love.

For more on Centering Prayer, click here.

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