The Journey Within - Centering Prayer

February 23, 2015

centeringprayerBy Pratt Davis This summer I have been sitting on my sunporch most mornings for a time of meditation.  One morning as I settle into my chair, I look at the scene from the windows in front of me.  I can see a ridge in the distance with a scattering of trees on top of the ridge.  The ridge is far away and the trees are so tiny, I only know they are trees because that is what they must be.  Below that ridge and closer to me is another hill top with trees that I can see in a more definite shape, and closer still another swell of earth with trees that I can see the limbs. Then I look at the trees in my yard.  I love the little dogwood beside the porch and the mountain ash at the fence.  They are close enough for me to see the detail of the leaves and the tiny flowers.  Today the mountain ash is covered in clumps of orange berries.  I can hear the leaves rustle in the breeze.  The dogwood and ash exude a marvelous presence of Treeness.  I think this progression from indistinct tree in the far distance to intimate tree right beside me is a wonderful metaphor for how human beings experience God. For some of us, God is way off in another realm, indistinct and separate from us.  For others, God is somewhere else, but sometimes we can get a closer view of Holy Wisdom.  Then there is the One who sits with us, walks with us, and whose Presence is as close as our breath.  The One who weaves a beautiful tapestry of our lives, no matter what befalls us in our life on planet Earth. A few weeks ago Ben Gatton preached on the Holy Spirit and closed his sermon with a question to the congregation, "Where will you seek the Holy Spirit?"  And yesterday, Bob ended his sermon with this question, "What is God calling you to do?"  I have thought about how we answer both these questions. I believe every human being is on a spiritual journey, whether it is known or not, whether it is intentional or not.  For me the journey begins with silence and stillness.  I sit in silence, letting the busy, thinking mind take a vacation.  Letting thoughts float away as they come up, not holding on to what arises.  Somehow in the silence, the Presence of that which is Holy intersects with my inner life.  The Holy Spirit is always here, we need only sit still and listen. Within the stillness we can see that Presence flowing through our outer lives.  As we bring our outer life into harmony with the Holy Presence, we find ourselves flowering into the whole persons that God created us to be.  Our actions and efforts are in harmony with our gifts and interests; we are at ease and can be more compassionate and generous.  When Saint Paul exhorts us to "Put on the mind of Christ," I believe he has it backwards.  The mind of Christ is not something we put on like a garment.  It is within us from our creation and it is our job to peel away the layers of defensive mechanisms and ego that we build up to try to cope with the world around us.  By being still and turning off our monkey minds, the mind of Christ can emerge.  That emerging Christ mind can change the world. One of the best resources to learn Centering Prayer Meditation is a chapter by that name in The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault, Ph.D., an Episcopal priest, teacher, retreat leader, and author.  I want to quote some passages from this chapter because Cynthia explains what is not easy to explain so beautifully. She writes, "How do I move beyond 'the mazes of the mind' and into a deeper wisdom knowing?  The answer is simple, though perhaps not easy:  through meditation.  Meditation is one of the most ancient and universal of all spiritual practices, and it is the cornerstone of the wisdom encounter with Christ.  Its immediate and obvious effect is to break the tyranny of your usual mind, with its constant compulsive thinking.  Its underlying and far more powerful effect is to catapult you into a direct experience of being, unmediated by thinking, and to give you a strong taste of what heart perception feels like.  But Centering Prayer doesn't work with the mind at all; it goes straight for the heart.  It is a surrender method, pure and simple, a practice based on the prompt letting go of thoughts as they arise.  It is a way of patterning into our being that continuously repeated gesture of 'let go, let go, let go' at the core of the path that Jesus himself walked. Here are the three basic points to keep in mind as you get oriented in the practice of Centering Prayer: First, Centering Prayer works entirely with the energy of intention.  To the extent that your intention is clear and strong, your practice will be also.  You are in the right ballpark if your aim is to be deeply available to God - that is, available at the depths of your being, deeper than words, memories, sensations; deeper even than your felt sense of 'I am here.'  You are simply asked to attend, to give yourself completely into that deeper, mysterious presence.  Let go of all attachment to outcome, all notions of some ideal state that you identify as meditation.  Simply stay with that quiet, gathered waiting within. Second, there is a need to 'put teeth in our intention,' and this is done through a simple inner agreement which I am perfectly happy to call a 'deal.'  The deal is this: when you catch yourself thinking, you let the thought go.  Promptly, quietly, without self-recrimination, you simply release the thought and start over.  The effectiveness of this method is not measured by your ability to maintain your mind in a steady state of clarity, openness, or stillness.  It is measured by your willingness, when you find itself 'caught out' by a thought, to return again and again and again - ten thousand times if necessary - to that state of open receptivity. Third, to help grease the skids of this 'letting go' motion, allowing you to release a thought promptly and easily, Centering Prayer recommends the use of something called a 'sacred word.'  This is a short (one or two syllable) word or phrase that symbolizes your willingness to 'do the deal.'  It could be 'Jesus,' 'Lord,' 'be here,' 'yes;' you choose the word.  It is not a classic mantra, because you don't say it constantly, only when something in you recognizes that you've gotten tangled up in a thought.  Use your sacred word to help release the thought promptly (without mental or emotional reaction) and return to a state of open availability." (Bourgeault, Cynthia.  The Wisdom Jesus.  Boston, Mass.: Shambala, 2008. Pages 141-145.)  I hope this excerpt gives you an idea of what Centering Prayer Meditation is about.  I think her description of meditation, as "a way of patterning into our being that continuously repeated gesture of 'let go, let go, let go' at the core of the path that Jesus himself walked," is a marvelous way to describe the practice in a few words. A few days ago I sat down on my sun porch a little earlier than usual.  As I looked at the vague tree shapes on the farthest ridge, I saw a flash of sunlight reflecting from something within the trees.  The flash winked on and off.  I now know there is something besides trees on this far ridge.  And I thought that within all this seriousness I am writing about, God is winking at me.  And I laughed at myself. Pratt Davis is a lifelong reader and lover of stories. She taught high school English before becoming a CPA who recently retired from her second career in accounting and auditing in the community banking industry.  Between careers she attended the Haden Institute where she received a certificate in spiritual direction.   She is a member of Sparta UMC and an avid UM Woman.  Pratt practices Insight Meditation, is a student of night-time dreams, and recently began writing articles for her church’s monthly newsletter.