“When you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:6
Welcome to a “journey of the heart”, to a place where few on our planet deliberately travel because our civilization is so “mind heavy”, occupied with busy lives, technology and the many complexities of living in the 21st century. The world of the heart is the inner world, the world of spiritual things. And its huge. It’s God’s world, the source of everything and the ultimate reality. What our minds see and understand are like the portion of icebergs that are visible above the ocean’s surface, prominent but just tiny fractions of the huge mass beneath that truly defines their reality. In the same way, the “heart of man” truly defines and steers what we say and do, who we really are and where we can connect with God.
Meditation is a practice of getting out of the mind and into the heart. Christian meditation seeks to discover “Christ in you, the hope of glory” as you do this.
This first session will introduce “centering prayer” and we’ll study this method for about eight weeks. Centering prayer is a simple and beatiful method of Christian meditation developed by Thomas Keating about 30 years ago based on the 14th century Christian classic “The Cloud of Unknowing” and on the rich tradition of “contemplative” which was shaped by a long line of Christian giants from the 2nd century onwards .
I’ll described centering prayer from 3 angles – a biblical angle, a practical angle and the way I’ve taught my children.
The official guidelines for Centering Prayer from the Contemplative Outreach Centre (www.contemplativeoutreach.org) are a great start. For nearly thirty years, these same basic points have been covered in Centering Prayer teaching in the form of four guidelines, which have successfully introduced tens of thousands of people worldwide to the practice.
- Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your willingness to consent to God’s presence and action within.
- 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.
- When engaged with your thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word.
- At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
Jesus’ Teaching in the Sermon on the Mount
The following brief extract from Thomas Keating’s words in the book “World Without End” describes three simple steps to meditative prayer:
“Centering Prayer is based on the wisdom saying of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 6:6): ‘If you want to pray, enter your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’
“The first step in Centering Prayer is to enter your inner room, which is symbolized by the heart in most traditions; that is, your innermost self beyond the senses and beyond thinking. Choose a place that is fairly silent, where the phone doesn’t ring, people don’t talk to you, and the noise in the street is minimal.
“Second, ‘close the door’, symbolizing your intention of letting go of all thoughts, preoccupations, memories and plans during this time. As soon as you are overtaken by thoughts, which is inevitable in the beginning, return to your original intention to let go of all thinking. You can do this in a very simple and extremely gentle way, like saying a sacred word briefly, noticing your breath, or turning to God with a brief glance of faith in His presence.
Finally, you pray in secret to the Father who speaks to you beyond words and who invites you to ever deeper silence.”
One of the desert fathers, Abbot Isaac provided a beautiful explanation on this teaching of Jesus’, “We pray in the secret closest whenever we withdraw our hearts completely from the tumults and noise of our thoughts and worries, and when secretly and intimately we offer our prayers to the Lord. We pray with the door shut when without opening our mouths and in perfect silence we offer our petitions to the One who pays no attention to words but looks hard at our hearts.”
How I’ve Taught My Children
I remember sitting on the grass above a beach with children, then aged 9, 12 and 14 and explaining this simple approach that helped them to “get it”. I asked them to think whether they’ve ever experienced God’s presence, and they’re fortunate in that they each have. I asked them to remember what it is like and to say where it is within them that they experienced it. Then I said that meditation is simply closing your eyes and focusing on God’s presence just like you have before, feeling Him inside of you. When you get distracted, use your special word as a prayer to let go of the distraction so you can return to His presence.
Some Parting Thoughts
The minimum recommended time for centering prayer is two sessions of twenty minutes a day. You’ll be amazed at how much easier the second one is, or at least that’s my experience. Commit yourself to this practice daily for at least a month if you want to “get it”.
If you want to learn more quickly, I recommend Thomas Keating’s book “Open Heart, Open Mind” which is the original and best on the topic.
This pamphlet from Thomas Keating’s organization Contemplative Outreach is a useful brief summary of the practice, beliefs and background roots of centering prayer.
This is the 2nd session of an eight-week introductory course to centering prayer and Christian meditation. Most sessions are recorded live from a group that meets each Saturday morning in a boardroom in Houston, Texas, with video-call participants from Africa, Europe and elsewhere in the US. Access the other introductory sessions here.