Chapter 2: Renewing Your Practice of Centering Prayer, Part I
Let's look in this chapter at how valuable the Centering Prayer basic guidelines are, even for longtime practitioners. Many of the difficulties encountered by longtime practitioners are helped by returning to the simple wealth of meaning that is contained in the four introductory guidelines.
For example, a woman whom I will call Jane was meeting with me in spiritual direction. Jane had been practicing Centering Prayer for about eight years. She told me, "I am still doing my Centering Prayer every day, but it's sometimes hard to get into my prayer spot. I don't feel as motivated as I once did. I don't sense Jesus' presence like before. I sometimes feel spacey during the prayer and ungrounded in life. What can I do?"
Jane's symptoms are not all that unusual for an advanced practitioner of Centering Prayer. She had an established discipline of daily prayer and had regularly gone on annual intensive retreats. As a result her contemplative relationship with God was deepening, and she was being invited to go deeper with her practice. I immediately saw that the things she was describing were symptoms of a deeper condition. This is a situation that she could do something about. Symptoms like lack of motivation and spaciness or lack of groundedness in life sometimes happen in longtime practitioners of Centering Prayer, but most may not know how to respond. Jane found that going back to the basics of Centering Payer helped her recover a freshness of practice. By doing so, she attuned herself to the new life that God was bringing forth in her.
Reviving Your Motivation by Renewing Your Intention and Consent
Reconnect with the first basic guideline: choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within.
Jane and I began exploring her diminished motivation for the spiritual journey. Problems often arise when you no longer feel the same enthusiasm for the spiritual journey that you once did. It is often disconcerting when your relationship with God changes. Spiritual honeymoons change. If you perceive a hidden invitation to growth within the change, the relationship deepens. If you cannot perceive that invitation, you may end the relationship. Centering Prayer opens us to deeper, but also a more subtle relationship with God. Conceptually understanding this shift helps, but more helpful is bringing your understanding into your practice every day. Most valuable is translating your conceptual understanding into experience by consenting to the growth in the relationship.
Motivation has to do with intention: why you are doing what you are doing. As we are drawn toward greater oneness with Christ, our intention and our consent need to be refined to reflect a relationship that is less dualistic. When we attune and renew our intention, then our motivation for the spiritual journey is reaffirmed and deepened.
I asked Jane how she was preparing herself for her period of Centering Prayer and what she understood her sacred word to mean. She said, "Why, I just sit down and begin by starting to say my sacred word. I chose it long ago and don't really think about it anymore."
During the practice of Centering Prayer, it is essential not to think about the meaning of your sacred word. But there is a way you can renew the intention behind the sacred word so that your motivation for continuing on the spiritual path deepens when your relationship with God changes. Recall how the first of Centering Prayer's basic guidelines says that the sacred word is sacred because it expresses your intention to consent to God's presence and action. When your prayer no longer feels sacred, one thing you can do as a longtime practitioner is utilize the preparatory time before formally beginning Centering Prayer by taking a moment to renew your intention, the why of your practice. As you affirm the new and deeper meaning for your prayer, let your sacred word express a renewed consent to God's presence and action.
Some married couples have discovered that renewing their wedding vows every year, in light of their changing relationship, helps deepen their marriage. Once in a while, they practice bringing to mind the changes and newness in their relationship. Then they consent to this new relationship by applying their insights in everyday life, bringing the original "I do" to new meaning and renewing their motivation. Your relationship with God invites a similar practice.
Here are three possible ways that renewing your intention in Centering Prayer might take shape for you, depending on the way your contemplative practice is developing:
- Before the time of Centering Prayer, you reflect on who or what God is for you at this time of your spiritual journey. Then, with this sense of meaning in your conscious mind, you let your sacred symbol come to you as a nonreflective way of consenting to this more personal sense of God's presence.
- Your reflection may show you that at this time God is a mystery whom you do not or cannot consciously know. That's not a problem for practice. As you realize or remember that God is an unknowable mystery and join this realization in your mind with your sacred word, you infuse your practice with an intention that expresses the truth of your relationship with God. Your intention becomes opening to mystery itself.
- Perhaps when you reflect on who or what God is, you find that you are spiritually dry and resistant even to opening to a mystery you can no longer conceive of. This is still not necessarily a problem when your intention is vast and nuanced. For in these situations, your intention can be to simply surrender yourself to the unknown. Remember, in Centering Prayer you are saying yes both to God's presence and God's action. God's action includes the purification and transformation of your idea of who God is, your felt ability to say yes to God, and sometimes even your capacity to prayer. In the unknowing, the pure consent and the surrender of your ability to prayer, you are brought to deep receptivity, so that the Spirit prays in you.
Over the next months, Jane began utilizing the preparatory period for Centering Prayer more consciously. Each day she prepared for her Centering Prayer by reflecting on or just remembering for a moment who God was for her now. God was no longer being revealed to her through the felt presence of Jesus. Rather, God was an unknowable mystery. Then she let her sacred word come to her as way of consenting to this aspect of God. As she continued, she realized she also felt some sadness about the change in her relationship, some grief about Jesus' felt absence. So she learned to introduce her sacred word at the beginning of Centering Prayer with greater meaning, as a way of saying yes to God's healing action. Again, this exercise of reflecting on the context for her practice of Centering Prayer happened before her Centering Prayer began, as a preparation for it. But for Jane, it was an important preparation. As she brought the truth of who God really was to mind every day and then said yes to this truth through her sacred word, she began to accept and respond to God.
Then she continued in the nonconceptual consent to God's presence and action that is at the heart of Centering Prayer. Rather than thinking about God, she just said yes to God, through returning to her sacred word. But now her sacred word was blessed with the deeper reality of who God was for her. When honesty comes into a relationship, deeper truths are possible. Jane's intention, the why of her prayer, was now about relating to who God was for her, not who God wasn't. God received her consent and in turn gave Jane great joy in the unknown. Her motivation for the spiritual journey was brought back to life as she aligned her Centering Prayer with God. Coming back to a fresh understanding and practice of the first basic guideline on the context for Centering Prayer – intention and consent – was what helped her.
You don't need a clear sense all the time of who or what God is to be doing the practice correctly. If you are already well established on the contemplative path, with a well-formed discipline in daily life and on retreat, and you experience resistance to doing Centering Prayer, you may be in the midst of a process in which God replaces your own self-generated reasons for meditating with a purer intention. Too often you may get hung up on seeking tangible experiences of Jesus' presence or even looking for tangible effects in daily life. At such times, the divine life is infusing your prayer life with a more profound meaning. If, as a longtime practitioner, your motivation changes or even seems to disappear, remember that you are being invited to reply on a purer, gifted motivation, freer from self-reference. God gives you this deeper, selfless motivation for the spiritual journey. Renewing your intention and then consenting to God's action transforms not only your idea of who or what God is, but also your self-referential reasons for pursuing the spiritual journey. Reducing the self-referencing helps you transform your motivation for following the whole contemplative path into selfless union with Christ and unity in God's emergence in all of life.
David Frenette's website is Incarnational Contemplation. He is available for spiritual direction by phone. Go here for more information: www.incarnationalcontemplation.com/spiritual-direction/what-is-spiritual-direction/