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Centering Toward Love: A Pastor’s Journey to Centering Prayer
In college, I happened to work the early morning shift at the Crowell Hall Reception Desk at Moody Bible Institute in downtown Chicago. After I sorted the morning papers, I usually had some free time between 4:30 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. I would make a pot of coffee and sit in a side office with a window overlooking the campus plaza. As a youth, I was taught the ACTS method of prayer and so I developed a long discursive prayer list that began with Adoration, Confession and Thanksgiving and concluded with various Supplications, such as praying for other people or situations. I loved praying through these movements. I loved God. I wanted to know and experience more of God and I sensed prayer was the way home to Abba. For a long time, the ACTS prayer method was a means of grace for me every morning. But two curious things began to happen.
As I prayed for extended periods, I noticed my thoughts significantly wandered, overcome as if in a blizzard. I would also find myself dozing off to sleep and feeling guilty for not “praying well.” But then one day something graceful occurred. Instead of falling asleep, I just started to let myself quiet down, and my thoughts seemed to “disappear.” I experienced a sensation of rest and Divine Love that is hard to explain. You might say I was on the verge of sleep, yet my chest literally felt warmed and I felt more alive and awake than normal. I did not know it at the time, but what I was experiencing was the first hints of the most beautiful springtime, what I now call Centering Prayer. But I could just as easily call it My Bride. Or My Chariot. Or my Lover. Or my Song of Silence. You see, I am quite smitten. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Secondly, I noticed that even after I had prayed through my list for over an hour in the morning and sensed I had “communed with God,” I began to observe that I would quickly lose that sense of peace and resume patterns of behavior that were less than loving, such as judgment, laziness, hardness of heart and even cheating on my studies. I began to wonder what all my praying had to do with some of the behavior and moods I was observing in myself. I disliked the discontinuity.
I returned to my collegiate prayer method early in my first pastorate. I was reacquainted with the same ACTS list and early morning routine of coffee, darkness and silence. But this time instead of using words, I began to simply hold the situations and people in my heart, silently. At first I felt lazy doing it this way, but I also felt led to continue.
At that time, I did not know of the Centering Prayer method. So I just started to experiment in the silence. I would take a Scripture and ruminate on it and let the words sink me into the silence. I began to really like how I felt in this space of grace – what I then called “resting in the love of God.” Then, one day I landed upon a book by Thomas Keating. As a Protestant, I had not yet heard of him but was deeply attracted to the book. I began to discover that what I was experiencing in my prayer was similar to Lectio Divina. I was intrigued and read more, learning for the first time the history and method of what I was beginning to intuit: the experience of silent meditative prayer of the heart. So I tentatively and clumsily began following the method of Centering Prayer.
During the first five years of my first pastorate, I was hit-or-miss on my daily Centering Prayer practice. I was young, immature and self-inflated. I could go for weeks without sitting down and praying. I suspect I am not the only pastor who began ministry so inconsistently. It’s all quite humbling to realize. In those years, I also went through a divorce. Increasingly I was manifesting that same discontinuity between my prayer life and my external life in the world – such as the way I treated my spouse or colleagues. I began to look deeper and ask God for help with this. I knew I couldn’t keep living or working in the way I was. Truthfully, I felt like an empty fraud.
In my seventh year as a pastor, I had a graceful encounter with a wise woman who helped me awaken to the presence of Christ and the contemplative, mystical Christian tradition. The encounter changed my life. My first sermon after the experience was entitled “The open heart bearing.” I began to deepen my Centering Prayer practice. I even began to practice yoga.
When I moved to Austin, Texas in 2007, I was led to a community of contemplative Christians who practice Centering Prayer and I began to pray with others. I began to deepen my grounding in contemplative tradition and practice. Over the last four years, following this daily practice of Centering Prayer, I sense that my life and ministry have become more integrated; there is not so much of a disconnect. I am more free. I feel less anxious and more open to love. I now understand that the “unloading” and healing of a lifetime of unconscious, repressed programs for happiness needed to occur. My marriage is also benefiting from the prayer. Were it not for God’s grace through Centering Prayer, I truly believe I would be divorced again.
Last year I went on a 10-day Centering Prayer retreat with Fr. Carl Arico. It was the most meaningful 10 days of my life. I did not want to leave. I was fulfilling my monastic fantasy as a married man and it was great. On the retreat, I cried a lot, like a sponge getting slowly squeezed. Let me stress: this was not sadness. It was healing tears of joy, prompted by the presence and action of Spirit. On my free time, I sat in the springtime woods and just listened to life unfolding around me – the Texas wildflowers pushing up, the live oak’s blooming heavier and heavier each day. I felt a part of the process of becoming. I drank the sacred silence of sitting with 24 others. God was holding us all as we were in the process of healing and emerging into more fullness of being. When I returned home, I couldn’t put words to the experience when my wife asked me “how was it for you?” We just sat together and I cried some more.
God through Christ by the power of the Spirit in Centering Prayer is my chosen path and practice into love and sweetness, life and light. Become the love you are seeking. Centering Prayer is helping me do so.
Rev. Dr. Peter Traben Haas