This is very different from the metaphysical form of prayer practice known as active meditation. This is passive meditation or contemplative prayer. "One of the signs that St. John of the Cross pointed to as an indication that one is ready for contemplative prayer is that active meditation no longer works" (Finding Grace at the Center 4). Thomas Keating says, "This prayer is not meant to replace all other kinds of prayer" (Finding Grace at the Center 24). The mystic understands that all prayer is, first of all, a response to God's call whether this is realized or not. Therefore, the only true response to such an invitation is to open oneself in stillness, without dictation or preconceived ideas of what God seeks to make known. This is coming as a little child into the Presence (Presents). The name, centering prayer, was inspired by Thomas Merton. In his teachings, he emphasized that the only way to experience God is to go to one's center and from there pass into the Presence. In centering prayer, God does us! The key word for all the steps involved in this type prayer is let. The steps for practicing centering prayer are as follows:
- Center all the focus of your attention and desire on God and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. Faith is moving toward its Object in surrender and love.
"When we go to our depths we find not only the image of God, but God Himself, bringing us forth in His creative love ... We are in some very real, though mysterious way, Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. 'It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me' (Gal. 2:20). As we go to the depths we realize in faith our identity with Christ the Son. And even now, with Him and in Him, we come forth from the Father in the eternal generation, and return to the Father in that perfect Love which is the Holy Spirit" (Finding Grace at the Center 13).
- Having rested for a time at the center in faith and love, take up a single, simple word or mantra that expresses faith and love and begin to let it repeat itself within.
Effortlessness is the key here. Do not strain your mind. Let your mantra take its own pace, being without thought until it disappears into the silence along with you. Let the word of God take you to its source.
- During the prayer experience, if you become aware of anything else, gently return to the sacred word.
Any thought about the word or about God is a pitfall in this type-centering prayer. The objective is to move beyond words and thoughts, to "take no thought" (Matt. 6:25 KJV), to know God!
Obstacles And Goals In Centering Prayer
- The mind has a natural propensity for perpetual motion. Thoughts will arise. The important thing is not to pay them any attention. Let them float on by.
- Brilliant, intellectual insights will often reveal themselves, and we will have the tendency to think, If only I could remember this wonderful insight. But, to take thought long enough to remember some wonderful insight will expand the distance between you and the silence, therefore, between you and your realization of God.
- As you go deeper into the self, you may very well experience yourself outside time, having few or no successive thoughts. It may feel as though your time of prayer is passing quickly or lasting forever. In this space, the thought may arise: Now, I'm getting somewhere. This peace is wonderful. If I could just remember how I got here so that I can come again. Reflective thoughts must be abandoned in this type prayer, for they will inevitably stop the inward spiral into the Absolute.
- Any form of meditation or prayer that transcends thinking sets off the dynamics of interior purification. This dynamic is a kind of divine psycho-therapy" (Finding Grace at the Center 31). Thoughts related to error belief, deep-seated fears, and so on may surface. Again, they are just to be observed with no invested interest. As soon as you are aware of being aware of them, return to the sacred word. Purification will continue at a level beyond conscious knowing. You are being drawn into the light. The book of Ephesians puts it this way: "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light" (Eph. 5:11-13). Contemplative prayer draws the darkness into the light and exposes it in meditation. Take no interest, however, trusting that by being exposed by the light, it becomes the light. There is nothing for you to do but go deeper into the light.
- There is, finally, a fifth kind of thought, but this one is to be accepted and not rejected. "When in the seed-bed of deep interior silence, the mustard seed of divine charity has been sown by the Holy Spirit and begins to grow, it creates within what the author of The Cloud calls 'a blind stirring of love.' This awareness is the goal of centering prayer, the beginning of divine union .... 'Stirring does not refer to physical movement anymore than rest refers to stationary position.... Stirring could actually be better expressed as a sudden transformation than a motion. In any case, you must forget all about time, place, and matter in this spiritual work'" (Finding Grace at the Center 32).
TruthUnity note: two pages, entitled "Potpourri on Centering Prayer," have been removed from the original document because they are copyrighted material. These pages came from Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating. © Copyright 1986 by St. Benedict's Monastery and were reprinted with written permission from Union Life November/December 1991 issue.