by Charles Fiore
It had been my lifelong habit, when greeting friends or strangers, to grin madly like an animatronic clown—all teeth. I used to think this made me seem friendly. I believed this put people at ease.
I was wrong.
What I learned, once the pandemic began, and my smile was hidden behind a mask—once I stopped smiling altogether, since no one could see it anyway—was that my smile concealed a simmering social anxiety and a boiling need to make people like me. The pandemic taught me that my ever-present smile was a mask, as good at shielding my vulnerabilities as the actual mask I wore to protect me from the coronavirus. My smile then was, most of the time, an expression of my false self.
“All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered,” writes James Finley, a faculty member for the Center of Action and Contemplation. “And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.”
With my ballcap pulled low, mask on, wearing sunglasses, I moved through the height of the pandemic as nothing more than a vaguely human form, shaped by clothes that fit a little tighter as the months wore on. I was like that corpse who gets carted around by his friends in the 1980s comedy movie Weekend at Bernie’s: indistinguishable, unrecognizable, inscrutable.
Then came that brief period during May and June of 2021, once I’d been vaccinated the first time and mask mandates seemed like a thing of the past, when I walked around shouting at everyone: after a year of wearing a mask everywhere and needing to project my voice to be heard, I forgot I no longer needed to shout. And so, the entire restaurant heard my drink order; heads turned, everywhere I went, whenever I spoke. Until I realized I was yelling at literally everyone, kindly, but still, like an old codger whose hearing was shot but was too proud to wear hearing aids.
Our masks were soon needed again, of course. And because it is so difficult to speak through a mask, because it takes so much effort, I began not only to smile less but also to be more selective about when I spoke. If before I hid behind laughter and joviality, I suddenly realized all those words, too, were just expressions of my false self. Not only that, but by “keeping things light,” by preening over pleasantries, I never allowed personal interactions to probe any great depths.
In Centering Prayer, we learn to give up control. There’s nothing we can do to make our “sits” go better, or worse; in fact, inaction is the whole point. This necessarily removes all superficialities and superfluidities from our prayer experience. In Centering Prayer, we simply wait for God.
Listening to the Holy Spirit requires quiet voices and quiet bodies. God speaks in stillness. Hearing God requires letting go of our physical ticks and weird social tendencies; I may have been doing a bunch of things when I was talking over everyone, guffawing through every conversation, but I certainly wasn’t listening—not to the people I was present with and not to the Holy Spirit.
Truly, I feared the awkwardness of silence. I worried about saying the wrong thing or worse, having nothing to say at all.
“Do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say,” Jesus said, “for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11, NRSV).
Through our work in Centering Prayer, this opening of ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit slowly becomes our default setting, not only during our prayer time, but during our interactions with the world as well. As it does, those superficialities and superfluidities we once leaned on in our daily lives begin to sound like sour notes in the melody of our day-to-day. They become less and less a part of us, until, hopefully, we lose those sour notes altogether. For me, smiling too much or laughing my way through conversations kept me from authentic connections. Through Centering Prayer, we learn to recognize the workings of the Holy Spirit, which conversely helps us recognize when we’re getting in our own way. Centering Prayer helps us remember that the less we do, and the more we let God do, the more completely we abide—and help others to live within—the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Being comfortable around other people requires being comfortable with our true selves. Being comfortable with ourselves requires being content in silent stillness. Our true selves need a mask-like anonymity, too, in order to fully reveal their Christ-like centers. Richard Rohr calls our true selves tiny flames of “this Universal Reality that is Life itself … God’s very self.”
Our true selves have the capacity to hear the Holy Spirit. Our true selves wait behind our masks, behind our affectations, at the centers of our beings: tiny flickers of truth, of God’s love, that we carry with us into every interaction. Through Centering Prayer, we learn to wait patiently for the Holy Spirit to move through us and into the world.
Recently, I’ve been taking off my sunglasses. It’s a lot easier to talk to folks that way. In the past two years, we’ve all learned to smile with our eyes. I tend to overdo it sometimes, of course, smiling with my eyes so hard they nearly burst out of my head, until I catch myself, and I recognize that this is just my false self finding a new way to express himself, my ego trying to take control—this time through my eyeballs.
So, I relax my eyes, and try to remember to be still, and to be present, and to listen. I remember to maintain eye contact and not do that weird thing where I open my eyes wide in a kind of imploring but surprised expression. My friends have made it clear they don’t have the slightest idea what I mean when I do this thing with my eyes, and that, in fact, it kind of freaks them out.
“Would you rather carry me around like that corpse in Weekend at Bernie’s?” I ask them. “You’re getting off easy!”
But even I don’t know what I mean when I do that weird thing with my eyes. It’s just my body, my false self, trying to do everything it can not to be present, not to be still, not to leave room for the Holy Spirit.
One day, we may no longer need our masks, or we may not need them quite so often. We’ll be able to smile at one another then and show some teeth. We’ll cherish those authentic smiles, those revelations of our true selves, understanding that just as when we Center, by doing less, we come nearer to being those still bodies, those deep listeners, those empty vessels, that God requires.
Award-winning novelist and essayist Charles Fiore is the host of the A440 podcast and communications director for the North Carolina Writers’ Network. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA, with his wife and family.