Most of us when we began our practice of Centering Prayer were introduced to Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating. In that volume, Father Thomas presents a chapter (Chapter 3) in which he speaks of the history of contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition. Most of his writing, at least in that chapter, explained how contemplative prayer gradually disappeared from Western Christianity from about 1200 until the beginning of its revival in the last century. So for this newsletter, I planned to write a short history emphasizing several earlier individuals from the time of the Desert Fathers to 1300 -- individuals who influenced a classic in Christian mysticism named The Cloud of Unknowing (circa late 14th century). Alas, that writing task is yet to be completed.
As I tried to begin the essay, I asked myself why this historical background was of such interest to me. When I began centering in 1994, I believed I needed assurance that this method was legitimate. Not too surprising to me, I believed that my early interest in the historical aspects of this new method showed my concern to look to "authority". I wanted to confirm in the literature that those Desert Fathers had, in fact, practiced contemplation and planted the seeds which flowered into Centering Prayer as a gateway to contemplation. Then I worked to connect the dots between the Desert Fathers and Keating. This was strictly my head stuff!
I suppose I was not unlike many of us. We move through life; and when we encounter some new issue or activity, we look to authority for answers and approval. Is this for me? Is this acceptable? What does the Bible say? What does the Church say? What does the priest say? We choose the answer that best "fits" -- the answer that gives us security within our lifestyle and within the limits of how much intellectual effort we choose to expend. We are uncomfortable unless everything fits and is logical. Our desire is to resolve the issue NOW and "inside the box." These are answers with no growth. If no compelling argument resolves the issue to our satisfaction, we chose to avoid the subject that poses the problem. Out of sight, out of mind. This approach generally allows us to shirk some very important work -- inner work.
I have been blessed with having a community for sixteen years that has been the focal point of my Centering Prayer practice. We have referred to ourselves as the St. Olaf Centering Prayer Community. Those of us who attend our gatherings each Saturday morning from 9 to 11 have had this Community and Sr. Joan Tuberty as our support as we do our inner work. Our regular meetings begin with an hour of centering – actually, two twenty minute sits separated by a slow meditative walk around our circle of chairs. There, in the darkness of Crowley Hall in the basement of St. Olaf Catholic Church, vigil lights flicker and illuminate the icons which surround us. There in that hour we individually breathe in silence and attempt to affirm with our every breath that God lives deep within our being. As a community, we unite in our silence as if we each are a stream of silence flowing into a deep and sacred well.
With hearts opened by our silent prayer, the second hour is a time of sharing. It exemplifies our need to live in the world as God works in each of us. Whereas the centering allows us to demonstrate our intention to be open to God’s presence within, this second hour has provided opportunities to listen and see the image of the God within us mirrored back from the members of the Community. The listening may occur as we:
- do lectio divina together,
- view a video of Father Keating, Luke Timothy Johnson, or Bede Griffith,
- listen to each other or an audio CD discussing a spiritual topic,
- "listen with our eyes" to the message of an icon appropriate to a feast day of the Church,
- in addition, read together articles or sections of books concerning our mystical journey.
It is in the discussions that follow the centering, that we hear messages that ring in our hearts as truth.
As to my quest for answers, I remember the time, while listening to a member of our group that I learned my faith did not make me responsible for finding answers to a set of theological questions. My faith is a gift wherein I am to be patient with mystery. Summing up what I believe is our shared point of view; I paraphrase the words of Father Richard Rohr from his book Things Hidden: "Faith is patience with Mystery. Love is the goal, but Faith is the process of getting there and Hope is the willingness to live without resolution."
Even though I provide this one example, do not think that we are expecting to receive a flood of miraculous inspirations from our practice and sharing. We merely become open to God’s work and accepting of God’s pace, wisdom, and loving guidance. We are being shaped as on a slow moving potter’s wheel - no shocks, no surprises.
Ultimately, over the years of this inner work, the most important task is to learn to be present. Present to our practice and to each other. We find through our practice and living with our community that within us has grown an inner authority, which we are able to trust. It is not a database of knowledge that has accumulated with age. Our inner authority is not a resource to draw upon to construct the "right" answer to a particular issue. It is not knowledge of the head, but knowledge of the heart. My inner authority tells me that determining the support within Christian history for the practice of Centering/Contemplation is not important. Part of my inner work is to move me from that head stuff into my heart. I know in my own heart that I have experienced the blessings of this practice. That is what I can profess as valuable and true.
I close with a paradox. Blessed with some level of an inner transformation, we are never able to separate ourselves from others around us whom we too often discount and generously describe as "misguided." It is not a matter that we are right and they are wrong. Having inner authority – being in touch with it – is available to everyone. Part of the paradox, part of the mystery, is the fact that God uses each and every one of us. We each hold a piece of the Mystery. We are not to move to action and conclusions without prayer, contemplation and inclusiveness. We are all instruments in the hands of a loving God. So we strive to live prayerfully and with openness – firmly in flux.
Bill Bailey has been a practitioner of Centering Prayer and a member of St. Olaf Centering Prayer group since 1994.