Q: I am 83. At the age of about 70 I began practicing Centering Prayer. To my great surprise, I found it easy. I say this because previous attempts at meditation proved unfruitful. The results were equally astounding, I began, slowly at first, to see the errors of my past life. By “errors” I mean moral errors, not life mistakes. Now for past past three years or so I find it virtually impossible to practice Centering Prayer. I find it impossible to choose a word and cannot still my mind.
A: Thank you for sharing your spiritual journey with all the graces and struggles that are normal for the Christian spiritual path. What you have experienced over your journey is normal for all of us on this path. First, I’ll talk about your first 10 years and then spend time on the last three years of your journey.
For the first 10 years of your Centering Prayer journey your letting go during the prayer time allowed God to heal your emotional programs for happiness–security, affection, esteem, and group membership–developed in early childhood by bringing to light those things within you that needed to be healed or forgiven. The awareness of what you call “errors” is a normal part of a deep meditation and a letting go practice like Centering Prayer. Fr. Thomas Keating says that with the unloading of our unconscious emotions and thoughts during the prayer time, space is made within us for the Holy Spirit to come in with all the gifts and fruits of the Spirit. I can imagine if you spend time reviewing your life you will find many of these fruits have come alive in you and thus in your service and relationship to those around you.
As you look at the fruits of the Spirit below taken from Thomas’ explanation of each in his book Fruits and Gifts of the Spirit, take time to review and celebrate how God has gifted you with one or more of these for your community. Your friends or family may have noticed parts of these in you before you notice yourself.
“The fruits of the Spirit are indications of God’s presence at work in us at varying degrees and forms. Through the Fruits, the Spirit is becoming a reality in our lives.”
Love is a participation in God’s unconditional love.
Joy is an abiding sense of well-being based on the experience of a conscious relationship with God.
Peace is the pervasive sense of contentment that comes from being rooted in God while being more and more aware of one’s nothingness.
Patience (long suffering) is certitude in God’s unwavering fidelity to God’s promises.
Kindness (meekness) is freedom from the energy of hostility, hatred, or outbursts of anger.
Goodness is the affirmation of creation as good, together with a sense of oneness with the universe and with everything created.
Faithfulness is the daily offering of ourselves and all our actions to God and showing compassion for others, especially in service of their concrete needs.
Gentleness is a participation in God’s way of doing things that is at once gentle and firm, sustaining all creation with its enormous diversity, yet without effort.
Self-Control as a fruit of the Spirit is not the domination of our will over our emotions, but is the spontaneous fruit of growing in our relationship with God.
Now, let’s spend some time on the last three years of your journey which seem filled with frustration of all the distractions that can happen during a Centering Prayer time–many thoughts leading to a feeling of NO peace.
I noticed a few things with the timing of the change in your prayer. You had a “zero” birthday three years ago and it coincided with the covid pandemic. Zero birthdays are special as they usually make us stop and think about our future, our life, our family and our mortality. At the same time the pandemic brought much anxiety as we sheltered in place and were isolated from our normal activities especially seeing our family and friends and being out and about. Add to that the anxiety of paying our bills in the new economy and the war in Ukraine and it’s no wonder thoughts are flooding into our collective prayer time. It feels like if we asked our friends about their Centering Prayer time these past three years many would say they had the same experience of the prayer as you. Yet even with all the frustrations of the past three years, each of us wants to stay the course in our growth in relationship with God. I can read between the lines of your question; and it seems you want to persevere.
Here are a few suggestions to help still your mind before you enter prayer. Consider using a vestibule time to go from ordinary thoughts to Centering Prayer time. Sort of mindfully putting aside thoughts that may come to mind during our meditation time. For instance:
1) walk in the presence of God in the land of the living while outside gazing upon what you come across as a blessing from God. Or gaze from your window at something in nature—birds, trees or the sun shining across the lawn or sidewalk.
2) talk with God about your immediate thoughts as you prepare for prayer. Tell God, what is at the top of your mind, what is worrying you, how you want so much to have a peace during the prayer time. After talking listen deeply.
3) pray to God for all the people you love and those you don’t love whom need God’s guidance.
4) chant one of your favorite scripture passages.
5) follow your breath for a time.
6) ensure your prayer space is comfortable and quiet.
7) remember God’s enfolding love as you wrap your prayer shawl around you.
Fr. Thomas teaches that all thoughts during our prayer time are an inevitable, integral and normal part of the prayer. We are asked to be kind to ourselves as we notice we have become engaged with our thoughts and to return ever-so-gently to our sacred word, glance or breath.
Many long-time Centering Prayer practitioners have had the same sacred word for decades. It is usually one’s name for God. A word that can be said without an emotional reaction. Choosing a new word every prayer time may be a distraction during the prayer. At this point in your journey God may be asking you to change your sacred word to a sacred breath. The sacred breath in Centering Prayer is to notice the breath … not to follow the breath. This happened to me during the pandemic, my prayer word disappeared; and I found I was to notice my breath as a symbol of my intention to consent to God’s presence and action in my life.
I hope some of these suggestions will help bring you peace during the prayer time. God so longs to rest with you, as much as you long to rest with God. If you have any additional questions, please let me know.
Peace and love,