Centering Prayer by Gail Hamley, Licensed Unity Teacher
As you expand your meditation practice, in concert with your faith, you will find that these divine moments come more often, until you are finally awakened to your own deepest self, one with Christ. – James Finley
Imagine a day of strenuous physical activity, and then at day’s end, you enjoy a cleansing shower, a mind/soul/spirit massage, and a deep refreshing rest. For anyone who has engaged in backpacking, hiking, construction work, or moving earth and stone during gardening, you know what I mean! The activity is synonymous with daily life and the shower to a washing away of all the ‘dirt’ or residue that has been clinging to the body of activity we have lived. When we finally stop, the massage and rest become so sweet that we can no longer return to the life once lived. This imagery came to me one day after I came out of a 20 minute session of Centering Prayer. Although I am not new to meditation, I became keenly aware that my mind felt, perhaps for the first time, truly rested.
Centering Prayer is a contemporary name for a contemplative practice that Jesus referred to as “prayer in secret” in the Sermon on the Mount, according to Fr. Thomas Keating, founder of Contemplative Outreach, an organization promoting the practice of Centering Prayer. Accordingly, it entails leaving behind external concerns and the intention of discontinuing interior dialogue via a sacred word. It is the groundwork for a commitment toward transformation.
In her book The Heart of Centering Prayer, Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “You have an intention to ‘be totally open to God:’ totally available, all the way down to that innermost point of your being; deeper than your thinking, deeper than your feelings, deeper than your memories and desires, deeper than your usual psychological sense of yourself. Ultimately, what will go on in this prayer is ‘in secret,’ hidden even from yourself, in that innermost sanctuary of your being.”
In the language of Contemplative Outreach, this ‘going deeper’ is a letting go called “consenting to the presence and action of God.” I believe it was this consenting that changed things for me that day mentioned earlier.
In Centering Prayer, “consenting to the presence and action of God” primarily requires an active participation by giving permission or an invitation to God. The word ‘consent’ comes from the Latin con (together) and sentire (feel)—to feel together. So in giving consent, there is a non-dual or unitive assumption when entering into Centering Prayer. You are aware of the omnipresence of God where God is here and you only want God. You clear away the debris to experience God, to know God without separation. The value of anything else is gone and you willingly wait, without clinging to any thought, and if you do get snagged in a thought, you return to your sacred word, one word that draws you back to emptiness. When we release all of our goals, wishes, dreams, terrors, and meandering of endless useless thoughts and give way to our love for God alone, we will change.
Where did this contemplative practice of Centering Prayer come from? Those who have researched it contend that it comes from the fourteenth-century spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing. Some who are familiar with the book suspect that the unknown author was a mystic who was giving instruction to his fellow monks because it clearly gives directives on living a contemplative life. He chose the metaphor ‘cloud of unknowing’ for objectless awareness or what we now call ‘non-dual awareness.’ His work includes another metaphor, ‘cloud of forgetting,’ to describe the discipline of letting go of objects of attention, returning the mind to its state of objectless awareness. Centering Prayer is considered contemplative because it is the active practice of stabilizing the mind in a state of objectless awareness.
The practice of Centering Prayer gives a venue through which God’s abundant grace forgives our human frailties and we dissolve in love. In The Cloud of Unknowing the author stated that meekness is the knowing of all of the self. We know we have frailties, which burden our hearts and sadden us, because we understand that they separate us from God, whom we love and long for. In this tender place, we come to realize the abundance of God’s love, that it is all encompassing and without end. It is, in fact, God loving us rather than us loving God. It is the worthiness of God that gives grace, not our worthiness, and we are in receipt of God’s grace as total cause. It is here where we learn to love. In The Cloud of Unknowing, the author used Mary Magdalene as an archetype for unrestricted love: “She hung up her love and her longing desire in this cloud of unknowing, and she learned to love a thing which she might not see clearly in this life, nor understand in her reason, nor yet feel in sweetness of love in her affection.”
In his book, Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr. Thomas Keating wrote that in Centering Prayer we “deliberately dismantle the emotional programs of the false self.” I have found the Welcoming Prayer to be most helpful in this endeavor throughout the day. Mary Mrozowski, one of the founders of Contemplative Outreach, formulated the prayer as a method of consenting to God’s presence and action in our physical and emotional reactions to events and situations in daily life. She taught, “To welcome and to let go is one of the most radically loving, faith-filled gestures we can make in each moment of each day. It is an open-hearted embrace of all that is in ourselves and in the world.” There are three movements of the prayer: 1) Feel and sink into whatever you are experiencing in this moment in your body; 2) “Welcome” what you are experiencing this moment in your body as an opportunity to consent to the Divine indwelling; and 3) Let go by saying “I let go of my desire for security, affection, and control and embrace this moment as it is.”
Although Centering Prayer is Jesus’ prayer in secret, there is a supportive sense when practiced within a group. Please join me in a Centering Prayer practice on Wednesdays at 7 pm starting on July 19. More details are on page 11. During our practice we will also engage in another contemplative practice, lectio divina, which is Latin for divine reading. I have often experienced these two practices together as a means of deepening our walk with God. I look forward to seeing you.