When you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door
and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father, who sees in secret,
will cause your life to blossom.
The key Centering Prayer teaching is the four guidelines which are the foundation of our prayer practice. Fr. Thomas’ invitation to go back to basics encourages us to explore the value of three supporting elements of the four guidelines:
1) The four R’s; 2) the levels of awareness and 3) the psychological experience of the Centering Prayer, sometimes referred to as the moments of the prayer. Many of us have learned the four R’s in the Introduction to Centering Prayer workshop: Resist no thought … Retain no thought … React emotionally to no thought … and Return ever-so-gently to the sacred word. They remind us what to do with our thoughts during the prayer time and when to return ever-so-gently to our sacred word or symbol.
According to Fr. Thomas, four levels of awareness are experienced on the Christian contemplative journey – Ordinary, Spiritual, True Self and the Divine Indwelling. But Fr. Thomas’ ideas evolved over time. In 2007 he updated them to five levels on the Invitation From God DVD. He named them, “Ordinary, Spiritual, True Self, Ground Unconscious or Ground of Being, and Divine Indwelling or Presence.” Fr. Carl Arico adds Psychological between Ordinary and Spiritual.
The Four Moments of Centering Prayer represent the psychological dynamics over several years of practice but they can also be experienced in a single prayer period. Using Fr. Thomas’ words from Intimacy with God, those moments are described as such:
First Moment: SACRED WORD
Beginning the prayer (Boats floating down the stream of consciousness).
Second Moment: REST
Sense of God’s presence, peace and interior silence.
Third Moment: UNLOADING
As a result of the deep rest of body, mind and spirit, defense mechanisms relax and the undigested material of early life emerges from the unconscious at times in the form of a bombardment of thoughts or primitive emotions.
Fourth Moment: EVACUATION
Primitive emotions and thoughts are released as one returns to sacred symbol.
In 2008, Leslee was at a retreat in Westchester, NY called “The Inner Room Retreat” where Fr. Thomas’ teaching on the moments of the prayer began to change. Around the same time, Fr. Thomas was also being recorded for the Sounds True program called “Centering Prayer – A Training Course for Opening to the Presence of God.” The Sounds True production team was prepared with posters for Fr. Thomas to present the four moments of Centering Prayer. But when Fr. Thomas stood to begin his teaching he said “This diagram is about the seven moments of Centering Prayer. The reason they became seven is because life goes on!”
The seven moments he introduced in that video are:
First Moment: SACRED WORD
Beginning the prayer
Second Moment: REST
Sense of God’s presence, peace, interior silence
Third Moment: UNEASINESS
Awareness of the impending unknown
Fourth Moment: UNLOADING
Defense mechanisms relax and undigested emotional material emerges
Fifth Moment: ACCEPTANCE
Allowing the feelings and thoughts to exist
Sixth Moment: EVACUATION
Primitive emotions and thoughts are released as one returns to sacred symbol
Seventh Moment: RENEWAL
Positive energy emerges
Chart: "The Pyschological Experience of Centering Prayer: The Seven “Moments” of Centering Prayer"
As retreat leaders of both the Intensive Retreat and the Post-Intensive Retreat, when the Seven Moments of Centering Prayer video is shown, we find that many people are surprised that the four moments can also be experienced as seven moments. The fifth moment of acceptance is the one people question the most. Fr. Thomas’ teaching on acceptance seems to say that there are times during the prayer that another dynamic comes into play. It is a different experience of
Let’s dive a little into moments three, four and five so we can understand what we are accepting as we consent during this prayer. The third moment is when we begin to feel a little uneasiness. It may feel like some material is stuck. We resist seeing what is emerging. Most pray-ers experience this uneasiness in a very gentle way.
The fourth moment is when one perceives the emotional materials as it arises. Fr. Thomas recommends that we pursue insights about the experience after the prayer time. Thus, what we do during the prayer is FEEL the emotion that is coming to awareness and sit with the emotion.
The fifth moment is what one does with that overwhelming feeling. It is a moment to let go of the feeling and allow it to be evacuated (“drained”) by really feeling it without engaging it. Fr. Thomas says “This is NOT the same as returning to the sacred symbol. You can’t normally even find the darn thing in this state of mind. It’s like a buoy in a hurricane – it’s disappeared. It is still there, but it’s of no value to you in the moment. You are caught in a downpour and all you can do is let it rain.” Acceptance of that feeling is crucial to the evacuation process. If we don’t feel and accept the emotion, we’ll re-repress some of it in order to escape or avoid the pain. As soon as we experience acceptance in this prayer, the evacuation (moment 6) happens. This consent makes way for the Holy Spirit to rush into that space.
As we sit in this prayer day after day after day, we are living the moments of the prayer. We may begin to manifest the positive energies of faith, hope and love, along with the gifts and fruits of the Spirit as a sign of the freedom of saying Yes to relationship with God, others, ourselves and the cosmos. It is important to remember that sometimes we experience all of the seven moments and other times we experience four moments and other times we experience nothing. Sometimes we experience the moments in the prayer time, and other times as we go about our everyday life. Fr. Carl likes to say that at times we are on the local train which has seven moments and other times we are on the express train which has four moments – in both instances the engineer is in charge. All we need to do is get on the train and sit and trust that the engineer will get you to the place you need to go. All in all, each time we sit down to pray, no matter the psychological experience of the prayer time, we are remembering and celebrating our relationship with God and moving inward toward our true self and divine union.
A lot goes on in the inner room, most of which Is invisible to us on a sensory and psychological level.
Be still and know that I am God.
Fr. Carl is a founding member of Contemplative Outreach, author of A Taste of Silence, and at 85 years old still consenting to God’s presence and action and celebrating life. Fr. Carl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leslee is a retired entrepreneur and now spends her days sharing the Christian contemplative journey, Centering Prayer, and Lectio Divina. She is a Contemplative Outreach commissioned presenter and is part of the service team that defines retreat experiences. Leslee is a spiritual director in Lone Tree, Colorado and a graduate of The Centering for Action and Contemplation Living School. Leslee can be reached at email@example.com.