Over 20 years ago I was on the Campus of Georgetown University in Washington, DC. There was a notice on one of the bulletin boards saying that Basil Pennington, a Catholic Monk at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA, would be speaking that afternoon on the subject of Centering Prayer. I went to the event, met Fr. Pennington, and in one form or another, I’ve been doing Centering Prayer ever since. Not religiously, like daily, but from time to time as the wear and tear of life so warrants.
Unlike traditional prayer where one prays, often on their knees, for specific intentions or to express gratitude to the Creator and Sustainer of all that is, was or will be, Centering Prayer is passive. One seeks to empty the mind of all thoughts with the intention of putting oneself in the presence of the Indwelling Spirit and to remain there, with the Spirit, in quiet.
As one can guess, the trick is “emptying the mind.” How exactly does one do that? For ages, those who have pursued the quiet life have observed that the mind is like a “drunken monkey” which continuously feeds us images and thoughts about which the less said the better. To counter the restless mind, one seeking to engage in Centering Prayer would recite a mantra and follow ones breath. I have devised my own method that works for me. I silently say, to myself, two words, “our father” coordinating the intake of breath with the word “our” and the exhale of breath with the word “father.” It works well for me most of the time. There is no right or wrong way to quiet the mind. Focusing on the intake and exhale of breath is often recommended.
Do what works; there are no rules in Centering Prayer. If you are drawn to Centering Prayer because you hurt, say that.”I hurt.” The Indwelling Spirit will figure out why you are there and what you need. If you need help, say “help”. You are in charge. I find it helpful to coordinate what I say to myself to the intake and exhale of my breath. That’s my defense against the drunken monkeys who, from time to time, seek to set up a free drinks bar and jungle gym in my mind.
In addition to there being no rules, there are a couple of other welcoming things about Centering Prayer. You can do it from any posture, for as long as you like and you can’t fail at it. I learned the last part from a Jesuit Priest at Fairfield University in CT. He spoke about how when he feels the need, because of stress or sadness or any other reason, he will lay down on the floor, and, as he said, “put myself in the Presence of the Holy Spirit and if I fall sound asleep, who am I to stand in the way of God’s will.” In other words, falling asleep is not a “failure” at Centering Prayer it is a sign that you have sufficiently deposited your problems at the feet of the Indwelling Spirit so that sleep is possible. Declare victory and go on about your business.
What can one expect from Centering Prayer? Wow. At a minimum, increased self awareness and a feeling that the powers that be in the universe are not going to send you anymore than you can handle. I’d say that and much more depending on the faith one brings to the process.
Faith? Yes, faith that there is a Power greater than myself who has created and sustained everything that was, is and will be; and that Power exists within me and that without that Power I could not finish typing this sentence.
Comments are welcome at tomc[at]wednesdayswars[dot]com. Comments will be addressed in subsequent posts.