“We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit”
2 Corinthians 3:18
In this 8th and final session on the foundations of centering prayer we step back to understand its purpose in the spiritual journey and the essence of what it achieves.
First, a few points clarifying what centering prayer is not.
- Centering prayer is not meant to replace other forms of prayer or to imply that all prayer should involve a “silent” mind. Other forms of prayer are biblical and necessary. But centering prayer will make other types of prayer richer because we’re becoming more spiritually sensitive and more connected to God. We’re learning to pray more from the “spirit” or “heart” and to be more connected to God when we pray.
- Centering prayer is not meant to replace meditation on and study of the scriptures. While centering prayer is silent meditation (known as affective meditation where the heart rather than the mind is in action), mulling on the scriptures (known as discursive meditation) is important to spiritual health and often leads to an experience of God’s presence, or “contemplation”. The 1600+ year practice of Lectio Divina has meditation on the scriptures preceding contempation which involved restful receiving from God with a quiet mind. Centering prayer enhances what we absorb from scriptures and teaches us to read and absorb the scriptures with our hearts.
- Centering prayer is not a relaxation exercise, though it will lead to greater peace.
- Centering prayer is not self-hypnosis – we remain very aware and are more conscious rather than less conscious of our inner world and its struggles.
- Centering prayer is not focused on achieving greater spiritual gifts or spiritual experiences, though these may likely increase due to our enhanced spiritual awareness
The ultimate goals of centering prayer are divine union, an increased intertwining of our lives with God’s life, and transformation of our inner world where our false self is replaced with our true self which is the life of Christ in us.
Jesus’ transfiguration gives a visual picture demonstrating what is possible when divine life exudes from a human vessel. Thomas Keating writes, “On the mountain Jesus was transfigured, that is to say, the divine source of his human personality poured out through every pore of his body in the form of light. His face became dazzling as the sun. Even his clothes shared in the radiance of the inner glory that was flowing out through his body.”
The transfiguration serves as a “teaser” for what can happen to men and women as we make more room for God’s Spirit in our hearts. It shows that the glory of God can exude as divine life from a human vessel. Interestingly the story of the transfiguration is the passage chosen in the liturgy for the second Sunday of Lent. Lent is meant to symbolize inner purification though some do it perhaps without that original meaning and with more of a sense of obligation. In its true meaning Lent is a symbol of a prayer that calls for God to purify our inner worlds so that there can be more space for His divine life in us. This neatly expresses the dual objectives of centering prayer – an increase of the divine life and internal purification that allows God’s presence to occupy even more space within of us.
We are meant to bring Christ to earth again, not as he came 2,000 years ago, but now as millions of human vessels carrying “Christ in us, the hope of glory“. The meaning of “Christian” is “little Christ” and we are meant to carry His glory, His power, His love, His compassion and His light into the world. Centering prayer triggers this process because we spend time in the pureness of His presence becoming aware of His divine energy within us. At the same time, God challenges the false self system and unloads the garbage from our hearts so there’s even more room for Him. True infilling of the Holy Spirit, God’s presence, is not from outside in, it’s from taking garbage out of rooms in our hearts so that more place is made for God. God’s Spirit does not come from outside assimilation but from internal saturation and penetration. As we let go of our false self through moments of “divine therapy” in centering prayer, we experiencing a greater “filling of the Holy Spirit”.
I want to use four different perspective to describe the spiritual process that centering prayer kick-starts in our hearts:
First, the perspective of the traditional church. Since the earliest days, the early church fathers and the traditional church described various disciplines and practices that led to “contemplation”. Most often these practices relied on silence. For example, Evagrius in the 4th century said, “prayer is the laying aside of thoughts.”
The goal of these disciples and practices was to achieve “contemplation” which literally means “a state of being in the heavens” and referred to an experience of God’s presence. The word “contemplatio” was Latin for the earlier Greek word “gnosis” used in the New Testament for experiential knowledge of God (as opposed to theoretical, conceptual “head knowledge”) for example when Paul said “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection” in Philippians 3. This Greek word in turn came from the Hebrew word “yada” used in the Old Testament to also refer to experiential knowledge (as in Psalm 139).
Contemplation or contemplative prayer was seen as a gift, because you couldn’t manufacture an experience of God for yourself. God had to arrive. But Thomas Keating says that it’s a “gift that’s already been given” because everyone has the potential to meet with God.
Contemplative prayer is meant to lead to a contemplative life, a life that is in union with God. Keating writes, “Contemplative prayer is a process within contemplative life. The former is an experience or series of experiences leasing to the abiding state of union with God. The term contemplative life is the abiding state of divine union itself, in which one is habitually and continuously moved both in prayer and action by the Spirit. Centering prayer is an entrance into the process that leads to divine union… Contemplative prayer is the world in which God can do anything. To move into that realm is the greatest adventure. It is to be open to the Infinite and hence to infinite possibilities. Our private self-made worlds come to an end; a new world appears within and around us and the impossible becomes and everyday experience. Yet the world that prayer reveals is barely noticeable in the ordinary course of events”
Centering prayer is a new method but it is in its essence a more modern version of the method described in the 14th century classic, the Cloud of Unknowing and the 4th part of Lectio Divina which dates back to the 4th century.
The second perspective is that of the modern charismatic movement which shows a similar process as the one above. Centering prayer is similar to what some would call “soaking” or “receiving” focusing on experiencing God’s presence during say a time of rich worship. The experience of God’s presence is like contemplation and this is what people like Bill Johnson and others refer to as “hosting” the presence of God. This is meant to become a lifestyle, a constant practice.
In my view, some “gaps” exist in the charismatic perspective that hinder a fuller and deeper experience of God because that people are not always focused enough on three important truths:
- The power of silence – there’s often a fear of silence and a desire in charismatic circles to control the program through constant activity,
- The need for the heart to lead interactions with God – there’s sometimes a belief in charismatic circles that we can and should control our interactions with God with the mind. Instead the mind should be subservient to the spirit as Romans 8:6 and an abundance of other scripture shows,
- The need to recognize the false self in our motivations – there’s sometimes not clear recognition that the mind is can be unreliable because the false self expresses itself through our mental programming in the unhealthy desire for control, affirmation and security.
Thirdly a perspective of Biblical words and terms goes along the following lines:
- Centering prayer is the same as “silent waiting on God” that is mentioned in many places in the Bible such as Psalm 4:4, “meditate on your beds and be silent”, Psalm 46:10 “be still and know that I am God” and Psalm 131 “I have stilled and quieted my soul, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” More Bible verses are given in our earlier session.
- Centering prayer is based on the first thing Jesus taught about prayer in Matthew 6:6 which was always taught from the early church days as metaphorical – to go into a “secret place” and “close the door” meaning actions of the heart rather than places in a building.
- “Silent waiting” or “secret prayer” leads to an experience of the Divine Presence – the “yada” and “gnosis” knowledge of God mentioned earlier. These words are extensively used all over scripture, and the Bible expresses a very clear emphasis on knowing God in reality, in the heart, with every part of the being, rather than having an academic, conceptual, intellectual “head knowledge” of Him. Faith leads to real experiences with a living God and this does not come from the heart not the intellect.
- Clear in the Bible also is that the primary dwelling place of God is in the deepest part of mankind, in the heart or the spirit. Jesus criticized the religious pharisees, “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” True religion is not about rituals, words and concepts, it’s about the state of the heart.
- Experiences of God in the heart are akin to being “filled with the Holy Spirit”. Ephesian 5:18-19 show that this comes from the heart.
- Constant experience of God and filling with the Holy Spirit all lead towards the two goals as we mentioned earlier for centering prayer – divine union and inner transformation. Divine union is a central concept of the gospel – we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Divine union is the main focus of Jesus’ sayings in John 14 to 17 for example, “I am in the Father, you are in me, and I am in you”, “abide in the vine”, and “I ask… that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me“.
- Regarding inner transformation, the Bible is also very clear about how Christ refines and transforms us. God promised He would “take out your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh so that you can know me”. The Bible speaks of the “sinful nature” and “the old man” that is our false self. The false self is reflected in Jesus’ three temptations in the desert – the unhealthy need for security (“turning stone to bread”), the unhealthy need for affirmation (“let the nations worship you”) and the unhealthy need for control (“throw yourself down and take control”).
As a fourth perspective, I’ll share an invitation to centering prayer for someone who hasn’t got a history in Christianity, doesn’t have a pre-existing knowledge of God, possibly even has negative emotions about God. I’d put it like this:
“Do you want to experience the benefits of meditation which are huge – they will lead to greater health in your brain, more creativity, less stress and more peace. This meditation will also open you up to the reality of the spiritual world because you are a spiritual being more than you are just a physical and mental being.
“The reason these benefits kick in is because your inner world is a mess – your brain runs a lot of unconscious programs that try to reduce the pain of your history and you’ve got unhealthy programs for happiness that control you. Meditation will begin to unwind and heal these things by bringing them to the surface.
“But the main reason these benefits will kick in is because you’ll come to connect with God. Not the God of religion, or the idea of God you have in your head, but with God as he really is – which is love. You’re going to get to know the source of love and goodness and its going to change you and open up the spiritual world for you.
“So sit down, be quiet and say your sacred word which is a consent to allowing love to flow into your heart.”
Finally to end, here is a short summary of the centering prayer method:
- Sit comfortably and take a moment to relax any tensions you have in your body;
- Say your sacred word inwardly as a prayer to invite God’s presence and action within you;
- Whenever a thought comes use the sacred word to return to your “intention” which is to be with God and re-iterate your “consent” to be open to Him. Intention and consent are an act of the will, and are very real actions of faith to which God responds;
- Let go of thoughts very gently. Be kind and gracious to yourself. Realize that the flood of thoughts we sometimes have are part of the process not a sign you’re doing it wrong. You can’t do this prayer wrong – you can just be available to God and He does it all;
- Remember the river and boat analogy – you’re trying to stay in the river of God’s presence that is within you. Boats on the surface float by inevitably; you’re not trying to stop thinking because that’s impossible. You’re trying to avoid attachment to thoughts, to avoid being carried away by a boat on the surface. And if you are engaged in a thought, the “deal” you’ve made with yourself is that when you realize it, you’ll get out and back into the river. The “deal” is not to have no thoughts or never to get carried away by a thought;
- There are three kinds of thoughts. Firstly there are harmless wanderings of the imagination that are easy to let go. Secondly there are emotionally charged thoughts that are more difficult to release and that show there is a healing work happening – you’re undergoing divine therapy and the process of dying to self. The third type of thought, which is pleasant, is revelations, visions, experiences and other encounters with God. Early on in your process these may be too enjoyable to “let go of”, but later you realize that these are “gifts” whereas what you are trying to do is seek the “Giver of gifts” Himself, not the “gifts”.
This is the 8th and final session of an 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.
Watch the Q&A after a live session of centering prayer: