A few years ago my husband and I went to marriage counselling. We were finding there were just some things we could no longer talk about without it going down the predictable spiral of feeling attacked, wounded and finally shutting down. In relationships, especially ones that last over a lifetime, you either grow closer and more vulnerable with each other OR you start to shut down parts of yourself to your partner that you just know it's "not worth it" to go there. There are things that you no longer share with your partner, and slowly, you grow further apart, because it's safer for your heart than attempting to grow closer together.
For me, it feels similar with God. There are parts of me, that are particularly vulnerable. I hold God at a certain distance for fear that I may get hurt, for fear that I may be met with silence, that my deepest longings can not be fixed or will not be met. And so we numb, we avoid, we distract, we withdraw our heart from the Divine. We don't allow the silence to penetrate because silence is painful when we are longing for connection.
The practice of Centering Prayer or Contemplative Prayer is an ancient practice (dating back to the desert fathers and mothers and the early Christian monsatics, though recently has made a resurgence in the 1970s thanks to the works of Fthr. Thomas Keating, Fthr. William Mellinger, and Fthr. Basil Pennington. The practice itself is powerful in its simplicity. The purpose is to focus on the presence of "Immanuel: God with us". Margaret Guenther (Writer, Professor and Episcopal Priest) writes
"The essence of Centering prayer is its simplicity. The point of it all is simply being there with God. Going to God without expectations. Childlike, we stop struggling and let ourselves rest."
The practice is about entering the silence and the stillness with God. Choosing one word that will remind us of our intention of being there, to be in the presence of God. We enter the practice without expectation. I know for me, I have struggled with this, always hoping and wishing to find the "magic formula" in which I will have a 'closer' or mystical experience with God.
The practice of Centering prayer is not about creating the right conditions for a mystical experience, it's about sitting at the feet of God and asking the Divine to do the work on the inner most spaces within us. It has actually very little to do with 'you' and more to do with what God is doing in the inner most places of the heart, the wounded places, the broken places and the vulnerable spaces.
Like the bleeding woman who reached out to grab Jesus' cloak (Matthew 20:22), Blind Bartimaeus who called out (Mark 10:46) Like to official who ran to Jesus to ask for healing for his son (John 4), Like Zaccheaus perching in the tree just to get close to Jesus (Luke 19)... we take the first step of simply "showing up". We position ourselves close to the Divine and we wait. Rev. Joseph Stabile shares about Centering Prayer;
"Centering prayer is not about emptying your mind, but allows for the recognition of thoughts and gently releases them into the hands of God. This form of prayer relies on the awareness that the Holy Spirit resides in the one who prays, connecting them heart to heart with God. This prayer depends incredibly little on prayer. Generally only one word is uttered during centering prayer, and that is what you have chosen which will help you bring your mind back to God...It is none of my business what happens in Centering Prayer. That is only for God to know"
"It is none of my business what happens in Centering Prayer. That is only for God to know".
This quote is the most beautiful part to me. It feels restful, like I am off the hook. I turn up, and God will tinker with this broken heart of mine. When my husband and I were in counselling all those years ago, our Counsellor made us do "Eye-Gazing" every night, as an exercise to try and build back the trust, and repair some of the damage that had been done from running away from each other. For anyone who has ever done eye-gazing it is one of the most uncomfortable and awkward activities you can ever do. As my husband and I did it, looking deep into each others eyes for 15 long, awkward minutes, my husband kept saying to me "stay with me. stay with me. don't run. stay with me."
The intention is, that for those 15 min, he has my complete and undivided attention. When it gets awkward, when it gets emotional, when it gets too silent - my job is to not run. To not leave. To not give up...but to say "I am here with you. I am devoted to you alone. All those things fighting for my attention can wait. For this time... it is you and me. For connection, for depth. For intimacy. For vulnerability" This is my default. I run. When people get too close, I run. When God gets too close, I run. Lately in my own Centering prayer practice, I have found the words I hear and say being "Stay with me" as I imagine the kind and safe eyes of God locked onto mine. For 15 tiny minutes out of my day, to say "I won't run God, I will stay with you...even in the silence". I've attached a guided Centering Prayer practice below, to start you on your journey. May you feel the God who is right there, with you, come ever closer.
"In contemplative prayer we seek to become the person we are called to be, not by thinking of God, but by being with God. Simply to be with God is to be drawn into the person God calls us to be." - John Main
“O Beloved, your way of knowing is amazing! The way you recognize every creature even before it appears. The way you gaze into the face of a human being and see all of your works gazing back at you! O, what a miracle!” - Hildegard of Bingden
"And the look in my eyes pierced you. When you gazed at me in return, your eyes impressed their grace upon me. I felt so desired that my eyes were able to adore all they saw within you.” - St John of the Cross
"Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the LORD, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me. (Hebrew: El Roi)” - Genesis 16:13
*Centering Prayer App by Contemplative Outreach
*Centering Prayer I and II by the Liturgists on Spotify
*Centering Prayer by Joe Stabile (available: lifeinthetrinityministry.com)
Books: Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (pg 235-242)
Spiritual Classic: Selected Readings on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines, Edited by Richard Foster and Emilie Griffin (Joyce Huggett pg. 10 - 16)