by Amber Sturgess
Recent years have brought about major paradigm shifts in our institutions, including our churches. During the pandemic many of our parishes had to close to the public, depending on state and local protocols, and we scrambled to learn new technology to hold worship services online. In the first few months of COVID, sacraments were temporarily suspended because we didn’t know how the virus was transmitted. When congregations were allowed to reopen, those attending were required to wear masks, practice social distancing, and congregational singing was either restricted or prohibited. Our way of being a faith community was forced to adapt to all these changes. As a church in the midst of this continual flux there were two questions I found us returning to over and over: First, “What remains when all that we know is taken away?” And, second, “Where do we find our rest?”
Throughout all the grief, loss, individual and institutional restrictions of these past two years I am so grateful for the spiritual practice and the fruits of Centering Prayer. I have especially appreciated the daily practices of letting go in prayer, surrendering to love in the moment, abiding in the present rather than attaching to outcome, and embracing solitude and silence and seeing how these fruits connect us with God and all beings. The practice of Centering Prayer is in and of itself the practice of metanoia (Greek meta = greater; nous = mind) – the letting go of our fixations, our habitual thought patterns, ways of reacting and perceiving things so that we can actually receive reality in its nakedness and fullness, no longer filtered through the lens of our prejudices.
In my twenty-two years of practice, I have seen how daily Centering Prayer has changed the microcosmic world of my individual self, my family, and the churches I have served. As an Episcopal priest I have had the privilege of leading four parishes and in three of them I started a Centering Prayer group within the first year or two of my tenure. In the three churches where a Centering Prayer group was formed I began to notice significant changes in the individuals who participated and in the congregation after three or four years of practice. Those who participated in Centering Prayer softened, became more open to the movement of the spirit, and developed an eye of the heart where they began to see what they could not see before. In the congregations as a whole, areas of conflict began to resolve and individuals reconciled. What seemed immovable and impossible became moveable and possible all because a few individuals opened themselves to a simple practice of letting go of thoughts and returning to God in silent prayer.
As many churches have grappled with a decline in membership over the past few decades we have often looked to superficial tactics to reboot the church. We thought if we just tried some new method, or reorganized, or interfaced through social media, or developed a better liturgy, or formed a new vibrant outreach ministry, we would grow (All of these are valiant attempts and sometimes they actually work temporarily). But I have yet to attend a workshop that focuses on the spiritual formation of individuals through contemplative practice as a means of revitalizing the church. When we open ourselves to exploring these hard core questions, “What remains when all we know is taken away?” and “Where do we find our rest?” we become vulnerable and a new paradigm begins to emerge. I have observed that when I am willing to surrender to these questions the response that manifests is “Presence.” If our communities of faith practice courage and curiosity and a willingness to peel back the layers of the institutional church – the organizational structure, the liturgy, the traditions, the sacraments, the music, the fellowship, and the culture, we will rediscover what remains at the foundation, the very presence of God. Presence is the reason we gather but we may not be conscious of it, instead we focus on all the outer accoutrements and we miss the very thing we are seeking.
Presence is the principal fruit of Centering Prayer. When we practice Centering Prayer our spiritual awareness deepens – an awareness of the “Divine Indwelling” as Fr. Thomas referred to the dynamic activity of the Holy Trinity within us. We also become more appreciative of the presence of God in all things – people, plants, animals, air, water, and life as it unfolds in us and around us. We become more aware of our internal impediments to the movement of the spirit and we discover gifts we never knew we had. We become more and more attuned to the life-giving presence of God and the preciousness of this present moment. Practice leads to the consciousness of Presence, the very thing we need to walk through these challenging times. The best way to practice is with a group of people who are committed to sitting twice a day in silent prayer.
Starting a Centering Prayer group can sometimes be challenging. When I first offer a workshop on Centering Prayer in a new congregation we usually have thirty to forty people, but when it comes to the actual daily practice and weekly gathering there are only a few who remain in the beginning. In the parish where I currently serve the first workshop I offered was packed. Everyone seemed enthusiastic, interested, and wanted to learn more. In the weeks following the first workshop a handful of people attended the weekly Centering Prayer group for about a month and then no one came. For a full year I sat alone in the space in which we had chosen to meet. Every Thursday at 5:30pm I went to the chapel to meditate alone and to hold the space. At first I felt disheartened, but I came to realize that I was digging a well of presence in the parish. After a year of sitting alone, six people came who stayed, and the next year six more people came and remained, and eventually we formed a group of about twenty people and usually 10 to 12 people are present at each meeting. We have gone through many ups and downs through COVID, on and off Zoom and now a hybrid, and yet the group persists, sometimes small and then expanding, yet everyone remains connected. Out of the six people who first joined, four of them are training for their certification with Contemplative Outreach to be workshop facilitators.
This past year, I have witnessed a new vibrancy and vision flowing out of the Centering Prayer group members (some of whom are not members of the church) to renew the congregation. The transformative energy of our practice is visibly moving into our church and out into the greater community. There is a deeper spiritual awareness among members of the church even though many do not practice Centering Prayer, an acceptance of simplicity and physical limitations, a loving attention to what remains after much has been taken away, and a willingness to rest and rediscover who we are each day.
The church has often tried to estimate its success by the number of people who attend Sunday services, church events or groups. People are something we can count. However, we do not know how to measure the deepening presence of God in people’s lives; we can only witness it. In the Cloud of Unknowing the author places the Collect of Purity from the Sarum rite as an epigraph at the beginning of his manual on prayer. Here is a contemporary version of the collect: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.” We “worthily magnify” God’s holy name when our spiritual awareness deepens and expands so that we become more and more conscious of the presence of God in our midst. Our increase in consciousness literally magnifies the presence of God so that we become present to the presence that has always been there. During these uncertain times may our churches find encouragement in our rich heritage of contemplative practice. May we rediscover the practice of Centering Prayer and delight in the fruit of God’s ever-increasing presence in our daily life.
Rev. Amber Sturgess is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, retreat leader, and a seeker on the contemplative path. She enjoys introducing others to the rich heritage of the Christian Wisdom tradition. Amber currently serves as Rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, USA.