“I stand at the door and knock, and if any man hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him.” Revelations 3:20
In centering prayer meditation we “open the door” to the living, cosmic post-incarnate resurrected Christ who makes an invitation to us of intimacy.
We choose a sacred word that is short – two syllables maximum so that its quick and easy to say – and that generally evokes a pleasant connotation. Examples are “Jesus”, “Abba”, “love”, “presence”, “peace”, etc. We begin our meditation time with this sacred word as a prayer to respond to His invitation. And whenever we become occupied by thoughts, we use the sacred word as a way of returning to God, to our hearts, to the spirit-level “inner room” within us, where God’s presence dwells.
The meaning of the sacred word is not the word itself. Instead it is a symbol, or “shortcut”, to a prayer that says, “God I consent to your presence and action in my life”. And the meditation time is then waiting silently for God to answer that prayer. When we become engaged with thoughts, the sacred word is used to bring us back to God’s presence.
Let’s look at this a little more closely. The prayer that the sacred word symbolizes in really two things at its core, and the meditation time is a process of returning to these two things whenever we are distracted by thoughts. The sacred word symbolizes:
- Our consent to God’s presence and action within us; and
- Our intention to be with God.
These are the two things we are essentially “doing” in meditation time – consenting and intending to be with God. And that’s all we’re doing. God does the rest.
Consent is saying “yes” to God and in reality, this is the most effective thing we can do in all of life – if only we knew it! Consent to God is saying “yes” to love, to the kindest, goodness in the universe, to the source of every pleasure and delight, to unlimited power and to infinite meaning and purpose. It’s saying “yes” to the reason we exist, to the purpose of our creation.
At this point some may pause and think, “I’m not so sure I really want to say yes to God”. Some are put off by Christian meditation if it is expressed this way because of negative connotations of God that they have consciously or (more often) subconsciously. In that case, the secret is to remember that the simplest and most profound description that we of God is simply, “God is love”. So simply say “yes” to being loved deeply, fully, completely and more intimately than you could imagine in the most inner part of your being. That’s not just what God does. It’s what He is.
God doesn’t need anything from men and women. He is not an egoist that needs to be placated and to have people perform for Him. The only thing we really can “give” God is an opportunity to love us. That is the consent we’re giving in centering prayer, and we’re resting and waiting for love to happen.
The verse in Revelations quoted at the beginning of this blog is the post-incarnate resurrected Christ speaking to men and women, offering to share an intimate meal with us if we would open up our hearts to Him. In Bible times eating a meal together showed deep friendship and love. This is not a one-off act, it’s meant to be our step in the constant pace of life.
The sacred word is a statement of our intention to be with God. This is an expression of faith. Faith is not a mysterious force that descends upon some gifted people. Rather, faith is an action of the heart that chooses to accept something from God, and Paul wrote in the the book of Romans that “everyone has been given a measure of faith”. Intention is an act of your will, like a switch deep inside of you that chooses what you really want. And when you choose God, that’s an act of faith to which He responds.
Hebrews 11:6 describes the mystical story of Enoch – “by faith Enoch was taken up so that He did not experience death”. The passage goes on to describe the secret Enoch discovered that led to such intense spiritual union with His creator that he vaporized into the spiritual realm: “anyone who comes to God must believe that… He rewards those who diligently seek Him.” Enoch figured out that God would accept him (that’s what “righteousness” means) and reward him if he just would believe that God wanted to be with him, love him and be good to him. He didn’t need to first perform and “get his life together” as misguided religion wrongly shows as the basic way to access to God. Enoch just “intended” to be with God because he chose to believe that God is love. God responded with something quite remarkable, and will do for us too.
I love the phrase in the 14th century mystical classic, “The Cloud of Unknowing” where the author describes the only thing we need to know God deeply is to have “naked intent towards God”. This is what the sacred word in centering prayer symbolizes – our naked intent.
Thomas Keating says, “when your intent gets fuzzy” during your meditation time, your sacred word is used to sharpen your “naked intent towards God”.
In this way, the centering prayer meditation practice is very different from other forms of meditation because it is focused on “intention not attention”, meaning that this faith action of the heart is what keeps your mind from running rampant whereas other meditation practices use “attention”, or focusing the mind on something like a mantra or a flame to avoid other thoughts. That is not what we’re doing and the sacred word is not a mantra that is repeated constantly.
In modern terms, centering prayer would be called a “non-directive” form of meditation, different to the alternative of a “concentrative” form of meditation where a mantra or object is used to concentrate the mind. Research has shown that the former category, while more difficult, is more effective in terms of neurological and mental health. This makes sense because instead of “using the mind to quieten the mind”, you’re accessing a different realm of your nature, your heart, where God resides, to deflect attention from the mind.
A great analogy Thomas Keating uses for centering prayer is to think of God’s presence as a huge flowing river into which He invites you. By the prayer of your sacred word you consent and you actively intend, to sink down and rest at the bottom of the river so that it flows though you. Your thoughts are like boats that float on top of the river up on the surface, and if you engage these, they carry you away from your core intention. But by gentling saying your sacred word, you “re-intend” to get out of the boat and back down into the depths of the river. Sitting at the bottom of the river, you notice the boats going by on the surface but you don’t get carried away by them – they just drift away. Thoughts still happen in centering prayer but you sit and watch them go by rather than engaging them – evenly seemingly good ones. Your mind is a perpetual motion machine and the goal of centering prayer is not to “empty your mind” but instead to intend to be with God as an alternative.
If you notice that you are carried away by a “thought boat”, it’s very important to be gentle with yourself. Don’t get angry and frustrated, just accept the situation, gently get out of the boat and plunge back in the river with your intention and consent.
Cynthia Bourgeault expresses this very well in her book “The Heart of Centering Prayer” as a “deal” that you make with yourself:
“The deal is this: if you catch yourself thinking, you let the thought go. It’s as simple as that. You’re not responsible for the thoughts you don’t catch (at least not at first). If you find yourself tangled up with a thought—no matter what kind of thought—you simply, gently let that thought go. You release it, thus bringing yourself back into alignment with your original intention, which was to maintain that bare, formless openness to God. Of course, the next thought may be right back, reducing the duration of your bare, formless openness to a nanosecond. No problem—just let that thought go, as well. The essence of this method lies in the prompt releasing of thoughts, not in stopping them from arising in the first place.”
This is the 3rd 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.