I think it is T.S. Eliot that has said something like this: After a long journey we return to the place where we started and know it for the first time. Sometimes when I read small portions from, The Cloud of Unknowing, I feel that way. The St. Olaf Centering Prayer Group has been meeting every Saturday morning for two hours for 18 years. One hour is our practice of centering prayer and the other hour is devoted to some teaching related to centering prayer or something that supports it or spiritual growth. In the beginning we watched Fr. Thomas Keating's 24 Videos aimed at giving both the practice and the background for centering prayer. We watched them over and over in those early years. Then other sources nourished us in our practice and as a group we read and watched and listened to what others said about centering prayer/meditation as well as others who could enrich our contemplative practice and deepen our understanding of the contemplative dimension of the Gospels. As a group we also delved into The Cloud of Unknowing, the 14th Century spiritual classic upon which the practice of centering prayer is based. I think it is fair to say that we did not find it an easy book to read. However, twelve years ago, while I was visiting the Shrine of Julian in Norwich, England, I came upon a gem of a little book, Daily Readings from the Cloud of Unknowing, edited by Robert Llewelyn of the Julian Shrine, and published in the U.S. by Templegate Publishers in 1986. Llewelyn has "carefully chosen and arranged excerpts so as to give the essential message of this spiritual masterpiece." Here is one such excerpt which brings me back home, knowing again for the first time, the essence of the practice of centering prayer:
A Short Word to Keep Intact
If it suits you, you can have this naked intent wrapped up and enfolded in one word. In that case, in order that you may have a better grasp on it, take a short word of one syllable. One syllable is better than two, and the shorter the word the more suited it is to accomplish the work of the spirit.
Such a word is the word 'God' or the word 'Love.' Choose whichever you wish, or another if you prefer, but let it be of one syllable.
Fasten this word to your heart so that it never leaves you, come what may. This word is to be your shield and your spear, whether in peace or in war.
With this word you are to beat upon the cloud and the darkness above you. With it you are to smite down every manner of thought, under the cloud of forgetting. So much so that if any thought should press upon you to ask you what you would have, answer it with no other words but this one word.
And if you should be tempted to analyse this word, answer that you will have it whole and undeveloped. If you will but hold fast, be sure that the temptation will not last long.
Sister Joan Tuberty is on the staff at St. Olaf Catholic Church in Minneapolis and has been leading the Centering Prayer group there for the past 18 years.