Imagine you are a spiritual director. You are meeting with a directee, Joan, who is a Christian, who is seeking God, who has gone so far as to seek out a spiritual director. You ask Joan to describe her prayer, and she responds thus:
I pray in different ways at different times, but each morning I practice centering prayer. That means that I sit quietly in God’s presence, trying to calm my heart and mind. After telling God that I am open to his presence and action within, I try to just rest in him. When a thought comes, I say a name of God, ‘God,’ or ‘Love,’ and return to resting quietly in his presence, ideally without thinking. I’m having trouble “turning off my brain,” though. Thoughts and distractions are a problem. And I feel like I’m not accomplishing anything. Should I be making this effort to practice centering prayer? Is it helpful even if I feel like I’m not doing anything?
Pause, consider. What is this person seeking in prayer?
How is this prayer likely to form the soul?
What advice would you give?
What strikes you about the prayer? What is it that Joan is seeking?
Joan is looking for a deeper relationship with God, deeper than words can express. Joan wants to know God in an immediate way, a way unfiltered by thoughts. She is attempting to do this by “turning off [her] brain,” as she puts it, but she does not feel that she is succeeding, as thoughts and distractions continue to come.
This centering prayer that she is practicing is a relatively recent take on an ancient method intended to lead people into a more intimate, wordless, contemplative experience of prayer, a method that anyone can practice.
How is this prayer likely to form the soul?
To “express” something, to put it into words, is to filter it though a tight mesh. Forcing a relationship to be filtered through words is to filter out its depth and intensity. I can experience the beauty of being on the top of a mountain, seeing the world from above, but putting that experience into words diminishes it tremendously. Otherwise we wouldn’t bother to climb mountains, we’d just read the reports of others who had done it.
A relationship with God filtered through words and concepts cannot be even close to full-orbed. There is a concept of ‘love,’ but the experience of it is a very different thing. Reading about joy is not the same as being filled with joy. Our end is not just knowing about God but seeing him, becoming like him, becoming one with him.
Those who desire deep intimacy with God understand at least at a subconscious level that such a relationship is deeper than words. But how do you pray without words? How do you enjoy God’s presence, or love him, or spend time with him, if not in conversation?
There is a centuries-old distinction in the Christian tradition between meditation and contemplation. In meditation we use words and thoughts and images and ideas to help make us aware of God. Hopefully these ideas and reflections also warm the will, so that our love grows. We decide to serve him. In doing all this we filter our relationship to him through ‘images’—words or concepts or thoughts or images, really. All these may be helpful, but they are not God, they are symbols or representations of God that stand between us and God.
Contemplation is prayer at a deeper level, beyond words, beyond images, within the spirit. Contemplation is gazing at God in love. Contemplation is meeting God face to face, experiencing him within ourselves, loving him. And, of course, God is love. Contemplation is love viewing love through love. Contemplation is participation in the Holy Trinity. Such participation is not something we can do for ourselves; it is a gift of God.
For those who are called to this path, there is normally a transition at some point in the spiritual life from meditation to contemplation, from worship based on thoughts and images to imageless worship, from mind to spirit. This transition is not something we do for ourselves. Contemplation is a gift of the Spirit, infused into us. Nevertheless, we can attempt to prepare ourselves by attempting to love God with our whole heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Dear Joan, Jesus tells us that the law and the prophets are summarized by “love God above all” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” He does not say “understand all theology” or even “memorize the Apostle’s creed.” He does not say “think clear thoughts about God” or “make many specific requests and believe that they will be granted.” He says love.
You will not be able to ‘turn off your brain.’ What you can do is, whenever you become aware of a distracting thought or desire, turn toward God. Turn, not just in your thoughts but in your will. Love him.
The main concern here is your will, not your reason or imagination. Let them be fallow. Ignore them. Turn your will toward God. Love him. Be eager to please and quick to obey. Desire whatever he desires. Thoughts may float through your mind, but if you become aware of them just turn your loving attention toward God.
It may be helpful to use a word or phrase to symbolize this intent to turn toward God. Centering prayer suggests using a one-syllable name of God, ‘God’ or ‘Love’. When you turn, say the word. Eventually, when you say the word, you will turn.
In our rationalistic western Christianity, we notice and talk about and pay attention to what we think, what we believe, but we don’t notice what we love. We don’t notice the Spirit. But Jesus’ command is to love. You may feel as though you are doing nothing when you have no clear train of thoughts, but if you turn your will toward God in love, you are doing something better than thinking thoughts about God. God is known through love. God is love.
Be at peace. Calm all desires or fears for things in the world. Be at peace in prayer, and be at peace in all the rest of your life. Eliminate from your life all desires and fears apart from God. When you become aware of such fears, put your trust in God. When you become aware of such desires, turn. Love God with your whole heart. If you continue to watch your heart for desires and fears, if you continue to turn, you can develop a habit of loving God with your whole heart.
When your heart is pure, you will see God.
For a book-length treatment on the original form of Centering prayer, see The Cloud of Unknowing.