I’m teaching this course on centering prayer in a different way from the 2019 course that is available on my website. Here, in each section, I am touching on the practice of centering prayer itself, and then delving into pillars of Christian truth to explain how God is working through this practice in your inner being (and in the world around you as a result). These theological truths describe the engine room of centering prayer – they are the things to which you attach your faith or your conviction to believe that God is doing something awesome inside of you.
Last week we began with the most important truth, which is belief in the indwelling presence of God in human hearts. This truth says that God is not absent from you. The purpose of all religious practice is (or should be) to dispel the monumental illusion that God is absent. Centering prayer in particular is an effortless practice of simply opening yourself to God who is already inside of you. This is why you don’t need to do very much at all – it’s a highly receptive practice where you rely on God to be God in you. Two obstacles to experiencing God that plague contemporary Christian religion are hyperactivity and over-conceptualization; both expressions of self-effort to “reach God”. Often we do too much and we think too much when we should instead simply “wait on God” as the scriptures teach.
Today’s lesson is on the spiritual nature of man and particularly learning that the spirit is not the same as the mind. Understanding our spirit nature helps explain how God is present within us. God is a spirit and is present, intertwined and united with us in our spiritual nature. This spiritual nature is what the Bible describes as the “heart” and is distinct from our minds, though it influences and is influenced by the mind. Unlike the mind, the language of the spirit not thoughts. When we pray in the spirit, and connect to God’s Holy Spirit, we don’t need thoughts; we communicate in a different manner – by faith, hope and love expressed in our deepest being. In centering prayer, we attempt to abide in this spiritual nature of ours, expressing faith, hope and love in stillness and surrender, without thoughts and concepts, and in a receptive way with no pressure to drive the agenda.
In centering prayer we’re actively entering into and engaging the spiritual nature in a very direct way. Of course centering prayer and meditation are not the only paths to do this. There are many other ways to enter the spiritual nature including worship, discursive prayer and reading the Bible in an open way as if God is speaking to you through it. Awareness of God in nature is another way. And so is practical actions of loving people. Anything that engages the heart touches upon our spirit nature and presents the opportunity to bring God’s reality into our lives.
Centering prayer works at the level of the spirit rather than the mind whereas other practices such as worship and discursive prayer involve the mind in combination with the spirit. This is one reason why centering prayer seems a first quite foreign; because we are so entrenched in our thinking and our minds tend to control every waking moment of our lives.
Jesus taught that men and women, in their deepest nature, are spiritual beings and that the presence of God regenerates this inner spiritual realm within men and women as it reside there. The spirit is what the Bible calls the “secret place” where the nature of man intertwines with the nature of God. It is “secret” in that it is greater than our minds can grasp, just as God is beyond rational understanding. It is the place where “deep calls to deep”. It’s the deepest part of you, the true you, where you exist in a union with God and where you identity as a child of God is affirmed. In John 3:3-8 Jesus describes how human nature is comprised of both flesh and spirit, and how human spirits must be “born again” by the Spirit of God providing a person with access to the Kingdom of God where God is actively working to transform that person into His own likeness as seen in Jesus Christ.
“Born again” has become an identifier of evangelicalism in the United States, the group that are known as “born again Christians.” Put aside whatever meaning this might conjure for you and look instead at Jesus’ simple words here: He said, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again… no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit… The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
The spiritual journey begins when anyone turns their heart towards God. Paul says in Romans 10:19, “anyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” From here, mysterious and wonderful things begin to happen; mysterious like the invisible wind that is unseen but powerful. An energy from God infuses our hearts with renewing and regenerating power, but our minds remain exactly the way they were before, un-renewed and unchanged. The neural pathways established over a lifetime continue to dominate us. The thought patterns we have established in pursuit of survival and happiness without God remain entrenched, and with our minds we cannot easily recognize the wind of the spiritual nature that is alive within us.
Our minds can (and should) learn the truths of Christ’s teachings to gain understanding of concepts describing how God works. But such mental activity is not the experience of God itself but rather an invitation an experience of God. Learning truth is important because it shapes and informs the experience of God that occurs in our spirits, where God resides. But the sad situation of much religious practice is that people are left with only learning about God and very little actual spiritual experience of God. And hence they are not transformed. The language of the mind is thoughts and concepts. The language of the spirit is love sparked by faith and hope in God. Faith, hope and love are not thoughts – they’re a spiritual language or rather a spiritual energy like the wind that blows with invisible power. This language grasps, apprehends and communes with God. In centering prayer, we enter the spiritual realm in our hearts to meet God, through stillness and surrender.
At her most basic core, a human person is a spirit, created by God and existing in the image and likeness of God. The spirit is the source of awareness and consciousness. It is by being aware that a person is alive. When she stops for a moment to listen and feel, that is her life and the core of who she is. Then comes the mind with its thoughts – understanding, conceptualizing and embellishing her awareness. But is this human person her thoughts? No, at the deepest level, she is her awareness uncolored by thoughts.
Paul describes in Romans 8:6 how God designed the mind to be secondary and subservient to the spiritual nature – “the mind controlled by the spirit is life and peace.” God’s idea is that our spiritual nature should govern our lives and control our minds; that we should be anchored and centered in this place where His own presence dwells. It is here, in our consciousness spiritual nature, where “streams of living water flow” from the fountains of God with life-giving force that energize our minds and bodies. The reality for modern man is opposite – he is disconnected from God, from this beautiful centre, and his life is controlled by anxious, scattered and distracted thoughts that burden him with a thousand pursuits, conversations, conflicts and painful memories, some suppressed into the level of his subconsciousness but nonetheless pulling the levers of his emotions and driving him like a animal of burden with little awareness.
The joy of the spiritual journey and entering the Kingdom of Christ, is that it gradually reverses this state of separation from God as the “still small voice” of an awakened spiritual nature begins to whisper and creates greater self-awareness with the light that God shines, the “Light that gives life to every man in the world” (John 1). In this secret place of the spirit, God speaks and our hearts respond with the language of faith, hope and love.
This is why religion without spiritual experience is such a tragedy – it does little to change the dominance of the mind over the human life. “Renewing the mind” is not learning Bible verses. It is loosening the dominating grasp of mental harmful mental processes from their control of our lives through authentic spiritual experience where the spiritual nature, infused by God, gradually assumes control. This is spiritual transformation and it requires us to follow Christ’s pattern of surrender and “dying to self” (more on this in a subsequent lesson.)
This is what we are doing in a practical and focused way in centering prayer. We are not engaging the mind with thoughts and concepts. With the pure love and faith expressed in the prayer of our sacred word which calls out to God, we are giving space for our awareness to grow and for our consciousness of God’s presence to expand. And of course our minds are not trained to be still and so feel the need to grasp control of the situation, to describe it, understand it and adjust it. But we let go of these thoughts with our sacred word and gently return to God, and we wait in loving attentiveness as the Kingdom of God swells in our chests. “It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of our God.” (Lam 3:26)
Living in the mode where the spiritual nature leads the mind rather than the other way around is what Jesus urged as “abiding in me“, what Paul described throughout his writings as “walking in the Holy Spirit” and what John described in his writing as “living in love and living in God because God is love.” It’s how we are designed to live in union with God.
Learning to live like this is like learning to swim when we have walked all of our lives on dry ground. It’s different and it requires adjustment. It takes faith and a regular practice like centering prayer. As we persevere, the river seems to deepen in that the Holy Spirit’s gentle control of our lives increases. Our fluency in the language of the spirit, in faith, hope and love increases. This is graphically demonstrated in the vision of Ezekiel 47 where the river deepens gradually from ankle deep to knee deep to waist deep and finally to a depth where walking is no longer possible. At this point, the miraculous fruit of God that bring healing to the nations are discovered in our lives, seemingly without effort.
In the practice of centering prayer you’re not processing thoughts and you’re using your sacred word to avoid engaging in them. But you’re not going into some strange hypnotic state or trance. Quite simply you are aware. Your spirit is speaking its language to God in silence and stillness. Your spirit is speaking faith to God. It is speaking hope to God. Your spirit is expressing love towards God and it is experiencing love from God. It does not require thoughts to do this.
In centering prayer you’re resting at the bottom of the beautiful fresh river of your spirit that is merged with God’s Holy Spirit and there’s a great deal going on, but your mind is not aware of it. Thoughts are like the boats that float on the surface of the river. If you engage in them, you’re moving out of this deep place to something shallow and are getting carried away. But that’s fine, you say your sacred word and return to the depths of your spiritual nature.