Editor's note: From time to time it is valuable to consider the origins of Centering Prayer, The following article by Meridith Schifsky summarizes how Centering Prayer is based on "ancient Christian Contemplative prayer practices." This article first appeared in the August 2010 edition of the Duluth Catholic diocesan newspaper Northern Cross.
In our Christian Catholic tradition, Contemplative Prayer is a pure gift of God, the opening of mind and heart, our whole being to God by faith, beyond thoughts, words and emotions. This contemplative tradition was summed up by St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century when he described contemplation as the deep knowledge of God that is love. He said that contemplation is the pure gift of God and the fruit of reflecting on the word of God in scripture, and called it "resting in God". In this "resting" the mind and heart are not so much seeking God as beginning "to taste" what they have been seeking ("taste and see the goodness of the Lord"). For the first sixteen hundred years of our church history, contemplation was the normal development of the grace of baptism for ordinary Christians.
St. Augustine said: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee". Through this mysterious yearning the Holy Spirit invites us to a deeper, loving relationship with God in Contemplative Prayer, a process of interior transformation, a taking on of the "mind and heart of Christ". God initiates this relationship and leads us, if we consent, to Divine Union. Our way of seeing reality changes, and enables us to perceive and respond with increasing sensitivity to the Holy Spirit in every situation of our daily life. God becomes the Source of all we do as we learn to live ordinary life with extraordinary love.
Centering Prayer is drawn from ancient the Christian Contemplative prayer practices of the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert, including Lectio Divina (praying the scriptures). It is also inspired by The Cloud of Unknowing and the writings of St. John of the Cross. In earlier centuries, ways of praying that prepared people to receive this gift of contemplation have been called by various names: prayer of faith, prayer of the heart, and prayer of simplicity. Centering Prayer prepares us to receive this gift of contemplation by facilitating the movement from more active modes of prayer into a receptive prayer of "resting in God". It presents the teachings of earlier centuries in an updated way so that people who experience a hunger for God are able to receive this gift.
The source of Centering Prayer is the Indwelling Trinity. Its focus is the deepening of our relationship with the living Christ, a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him. It is also a discipline to foster that relationship. In a daily Centering Prayer practice of 20 minutes or longer, we respond to the Spirit by the use of a simple "sacred word" that becomes our "yes" to God.
Guidelines for Centering Prayer:
1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's Presence and action within. (Examples: Abba, Amen, Mother, Spirit, Jesus).
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God's Presence and action within. (This sacred word becomes our "yes" to God and His will for us).
3. When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word. (We are willing to let go of our thoughts and words to move to a deeper level of knowing and loving God in silence).
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. (This enables us to bring the atmosphere of surrender to God into our daily life).
Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other prayer practices such as daily mass, rosary, or reading scripture. Rather it casts a new depth of meaning on them. It is rooted in scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ, and is meant to help renew the Christian Contemplative Tradition handed down to us in an uninterrupted manner from St. Paul, who writes of the intimate knowledge of Christ that comes through love. "May Christ dwell in your hearts by faith, and may charity be the root and foundation of your life. Thus you will be able to grasp fully ... the breath, length, height and depth of Christ's love." Eph 3: 17-18.
Meridith Schifsky is a trained presenter of Centering Prayer and a member of the Minnesota Contemplative Outreach planning group.