Contemplative prayer, the term used for centuries in church history for the experience of the Presence of God, is a movement of divine grace. This experience was always taught as being a gift from God, a gift of His grace. You can’t earn it and you don’t deserve it. At the same time, resting in God’s presence deepens our understand of amazing grace causing an experiential knowledge of this beautiful aspect of God’s nature to sink deeply into our hearts where faith, hope and love arise in response.
We will more regularly experience deep and intimate connection with God in prayer if we keep this one thought in the forefront of our minds and hearts: that God continues to give Himself in love to us moment by moment in the same way that Christ gave up His own life for us two thousand years ago. This is amazing grace.
Recall that centering prayer, the meditation method we’ve been learning, is simply that: a method or a practice. The method is meant to lead to contemplative prayer – the gift of the experience of God’s presence in prayer. When integrated into a regular daily disciple, centering prayer brings us to more frequent experiences of God’s presence that enlarge our spiritual lives, lead to a closer union with Christ as experienced reality and slowly but surely transform everything in our lives.
Centering prayer is based on saying the “sacred word” as a prayer to consent to Christ’s presence and action in our hearts whenever we are distracted by thoughts. In this series we’re adding additional “layers” of meaning to the prayer expressed by the sacred word. In the previous session, we added the prayer, “I rest in you” and in this session our prayer is “I receive your grace“. Resting in God and receiving His grace are in fact two sides of the same coin. Resting in God’s presence relies on grace – you’re there because you believe that you’re accepted and that you’re loved. Even if you don’t feel it, you choose to believe it. You accept that God is giving Himself to you and that there’s nothing else He wants you to do in this moment other than to receive from Him and to let His love flow over you. The acceptance of divine grace leads to an increase in our experience God’s presence.
Silence is the intimate moment when our understanding of God’s grace is tested. I remember clearly a moment early on in my centering prayer journey – perhaps two months in. I reached a point of silence stillness and was very aware that I was present with God. I felt awkward and tempted to begin some kind of activity to justify being with Him, but I knew that this was inappropriate. Like Peter in his moment of divine encounter on the Mount of Transfiguration I felt like I wanted to begin talking and doing something random like constructing shelters. Instead I stayed still and felt the Lord touch my heart with the assurance that I belonged with Him in the intimacy of His presence, and that I didn’t need to perform in any way to remain there with Him. For me this was a powerful moment of accepting His gracious kindness and it has had a lasting impact in increasing my experience of God’s presence.
There’s a part of the false self, of our fallen ego that struggles to accept the lavish kindness and grace of God and that feels it needs to earn God’s favor and love. This is the orphan nature within us. Though we are adopted as God’s children, a part of us doesn’t yet know the grace that has secured our place as sons and daughters in God’s house. When this orphan nature is institutionalized in church programs and structures, we get the worst of religion that boils down to a single formula: rules and rituals that you need to perform to “earn” God’s love. Of course that doesn’t work very well because grace cannot be earned, so instead it produces religion with very little real experience of God, and often a lot of ego-driven performance.
Here are eight thoughts about divine grace to ponder over the next week. I recommend you take a few minutes before your time of centering prayer to allow these to sink from your mind into your heart.
- Grace is the act of God giving Himself to us in love – Romans 5:8 “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ’s death and sacrifice was the ultimate picture of something that is continuous and ongoing: that God is giving Himself to us in love at every moment of our lives. Thomas Keating writes, “grace is the presence and action of God at every moment of our lives.”
- Grace is the reason for righteousness – Romans 5:17 “how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” Righteousness doesn’t mean we’re perfect, it means we’re “all right” with God, acceptance and loved. This is as a result of His grace alone.
- Grace can only be received, never earned – Galatians 2:21 “I do not frustrate the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” Galatians is a kind of a sequel to the book of Romans. Romans taught that salvation and our acceptance as God’s children is by grace not good works. Galatians teaches that our ongoing spiritual journey, and the closeness of the Holy Spirit, is just as much by grace and not by works.
- Grace is the reason we have the Holy Spirit – Galatians 3:5 “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort. Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” Paul, the author, uses stronger language to challenge the Galatians about their errors that the Corinthians that had immorality and division in their ranks. Their error: that they thought they could earn the wonderful gifts of God – the Holy Spirit and miracles.
- Grace is the reason that we’re loved – 1 Timothy 1:14 “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
- Grace turns the biggest failures into a beautiful life – Ephesians 3:8 “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” This wasn’t just flowery speech. Paul genuinely believed that he was the least deserving Christian. Elsewhere he called himself the “chief of sinners”. But grace transformed him into the leading apostle of Christ, and it transforms us too so that we shine like the stars in the universe.
- Grace is the reason we can rest – 2 Corinthians 12:9 “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
- Grace helps us to let go of our false self – Titus 2:4 “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions.” In centering prayer we get confronted with a choice when we need to “let go” of certain thoughts that are linked to our false self, our broken fallen nature: do we hold onto these “passions” and stay as we are, or do we trade them for the love and kindness of God and be more deeply filled with the Holy Spirit.
Watch the discussion session after a group session of centering prayer.
This is the second in a series of sessions aimed at deepening the experience of centering prayer, Christian meditation or “silent waiting on God” as the Bible terms it. To learn the foundations of centering prayer, watch, listen to or read our 8 session introductory course.