Anne Howard: A Word in Time: Centering Prayer


A Summer Reading Series recommendation:

Cynthia Bourgeault's Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Cowley, 2004)

(1st in a series of Three Top Books on Prayer)

One thing I know about prayer is that it changes. It changes from time to time and from person to person. There is no one-size-fits-all, and there is no one best method. (In fact, if someone says "this is the best" or "this way to pray is right" someone is fooling.) There are many ways to pray, enough to spend a lifetime trying on just a few of them.

Recently a wise woman, my spiritual director, suggested I give centering prayer a try as a contemplative prayer practice. She recommended Bourgeault's book as a guide. I'd tried centering prayer long ago, read lots about it, kept at it a bit, but it wasn't the prayer for that time of my life. I'm now back to this practice, and this book is one reason why.

Bourgeault makes it simple. She handily dismisses the notion that this type of prayer is some kind of spiritual ladder-top. "Far from being advanced," she writes, "it is about the simplest form of prayer there is." (5) She is refreshing in her brevity, her humor, and her practicality. She quotes Thomas Keating on centering prayer, saying it is "taking a vacation from yourself."

She instructs:

"It's very, very simple. You sit, either in a chair or on a prayer stool or mat, and allow your heart to open toward that invisible but always present Origin of all that exists. Whenever a thought comes into your mind, you simply let the thought go and return to that open, silent attending upon the depths. Not because thinking is bad, but because it pulls you back to the surface of yourself. You use a short word or pharase, known as a "sacred word," such as "abba" or "peace" or "be still" to help you let go of the thought promptly and cleanly. You do this practice for twenty minutes, and then you get up and move on with your life."(6)

What I find refreshing is that those twenty minutes aren't billed as anything special: no angel wings brush by, no celestial lights shimmer, no profound insights arise, no a-ha moments solve the day's dilemmas. It's simply time in which to "put a spoke into the wheels of thinking." That's a vacation indeed.

She writes: "What goes on in those silent depths during the time of Centering Prayer is no one's business, not even your own; it is between your innermost being ad God; that place where, as St. Augustine once said, "God is closer to you soul than you are yourself." Your own subjective experience of the prayer may be that nothing happened...but in the depths of your being, in fact, plenty has been going on, and things are quietly but firmly being rearranged." (6)

Beyond simple instruction, Bourgeault grounds centering prayer in the practice and teaching of Jesus. Centering prayer is the "art of letting go," an act of surrender, in which we practice "kenosis," self-emptying. As such, it is a practice that opens us to a deeper awareness of God in ourselves, in our world, and in everyone we meet.


Echoes from the Edge

Summer Reading Series

By Richard Burden, 2012-13 Beatitudes Fellow - July 22nd, 2013

Richard recommends:

Sacredness of Questioning Everything,   by David Dark

"Dark is one of my favorite cultural commentators. He is passionate about both faith, and popular culture, and he truly believes that grace is everywhere if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear."

Mediated: How the media shapes your world and the way you live in it , by Thomas de Zongotita

"As fish live in water, so we live in a world of media. So much so that we rarely stop to reflect on just what it is that we're swimming in or what it's doing to us, de Zongotita helps us reflect."

Rule of Benedict  and  Wisdom Distilled from the Daily,  both books by Joan Chittister: 

"At the end of his seminal work After Virtue, Alistar MacIntyre argued that if the tradition of the virtues was to survive, our civilization needed a new St. Benedict; these two works by Joan Chittister show that the original Benedict still has tremendous wisdom to offer."

  A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming , by Michael Northcott and  Life Abundant, by  Sallie McFague

"Both compellingly connect the dots between Christian scripture, theology, environment and ethics."

Richard Burden is priest in charge of The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Madison County, Kentucky

Finally, the Poet

on Prayer

By Joan Chittester - July 22nd, 2013

. . . There is only one thing wrong with the traditional definition of prayer: it misrepresents God. "Prayer," the old teaching said, was "the raising of our hearts and minds to God." As if God were some regal, distant judge outside ourselves. But science--with its new perception that matter and spirit are of a piece, sometimes particles, sometimes energy--suggests that God is not on a cloud somewhre, imperious and suspecting. God is the very Energy that animates us. God is not male humanity writ large. God is the Spirit that leads us and drives us on. God is the voice within us calling us to Life. God is the Reality trying to come to fullness within us, both individually and together. It is to that cosmic God, that personal, inner, enkindling God, that we pray.

. . . The contemplative does not pray in order to coax satisfaction out of the universe. God is life, not a vending machine full of trifles to fit the whims of the human race God is the end of life, the fulfillment of life, the essence of life, the comng of life. The contemplative prays in order to be open to what is, rather than to reshape the world to their own lesser designs."

(from Illuminated Life, 2000)

Taken with permission from the Beatitudes Society blog.